As we take the time to celebrate the sacrifices and contributions of our Veterans on November 11th, we might remember that healthy hearing continues to be a par-for-the-course sacrifice of service persons in our military. In fact, the boom in the field of audiology in the 1940s is a direct result of an overwhelming number of combat veterans returning from World War II reporting substantial hearing loss. The advancements in warfare technology meant louder military environments than previously experienced. Further advancements and expansion of these technologies over the ensuing decades has done nothing but increase the rates of noise induced hearing loss for military personnel.
Noise induced hearing loss (NIHL)
Most commonly associated with clamorous professions, noise induced hearing loss affects people from all walks of life. From construction workers to professional musicians, anyone exposed to a dangerous level of noise over an extended period of time runs the risk of damaging the sensitive systems responsible for conducting healthy hearing. Our society amplifies the risk of this by continuously producing situations in which noise is increasingly loud. Even our kids are potentially exposing themselves to noise induced hearing loss because of smart phone volume and the propensity to wear headphones.
To put things into perspective, our ears can spend up to 8 hours a day in a somewhat noisy environment without any risk of hearing loss. Noises that register around 85 decibels, which would include daily situations such as sitting in a crowded restaurant, are perfectly acceptable. The danger becomes present when noises begin to exceed these levels, and they often do. A lawnmower or a loud rock concert are common listening scenarios of daily life that regularly top out at 90 or even 115 decibels. And beyond lessened degrees of hearing, veterans also report high instances of tinnitus, which is a constant ringing in the ears.
Noise induced hearing loss and the military
The dangers of noise induced hearing loss are considerable for military personnel. There’s the situation that immediately comes to mind such as one, rapid and extremely loud explosion. However, beyond encountering an exploding bomb, there are a multitude of less dramatic dangerous noise scenarios that permeate the profession.
People serving in our military are often doing the arduous and repetitive work of repairing engines, working aboard a ship or on a flight line or while operating heavy equipment. Their proximity to powerfully loud engines for long bouts of time carries a high cost. In an inherently dangerous environment, risk of noise induced hearing loss is a lesser priority. And while controls are implemented when possible, there’s only so much that can be done to suppress the noise of a jet engine.
Creating a barrier against hearing loss
In a study by the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers reported that 16.4 to 26.6 percent of male veterans of the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War suffer from serious hearing loss and tinnitus. That same study found 7.3 to 13.4 percent of female veterans had hearing loss. Further, in its entire history, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has consistently reported that tinnitus and hearing loss are the number one and two most common injuries of service members.
One way to combat hearing damage is by providing earplugs, which the military does in spades. A pair of foam earplugs, a simple but effective solution, can reduce noise levels by tens of decibels. This successfully brings dangerously loud noise levels down to levels that are sustainable for the human ear.
Protection when it’s useful
However, the earplug solution is only successful when the earplugs are actually being worn. The protection is effective, but it’s well known that soldiers won’t wear them on the battlefield. This is because while the earplugs prevent dangerously loud sounds from reaching their ears, it also muffles this highly important sense when every moment could be fatal and every sound of importance.
Thankfully, the protective systems available are getting higher tech. There is a new device called a TCAPS (Tactical Communication and Protective Systems) which can be worn internally as earbuds or externally as earmuffs. Its intention is to protect hearing without exterminating important sound. TCAPS uses sophisticated technology to lower the intensity of high decibel sound and heighten softer sounds. This allows for the wearer to be protected from noise induced hearing loss without sacrificing awareness of their surroundings.
Support of Veterans Affairs
Veterans who served before the existence of TCAPS are likely to experience hearing loss as a result of their service. The best way to mitigate damage is by tapping into services and resources geared towards military personnel.
At Hearing Health Care Center, we provide comprehensive hearing tests and hearing aid fittings. Schedule regular hearing tests to get an accurate read on your hearing health.