FORT SILL, Okla. -- Hearing loss and tinnitus are among the top medical complaints, and most widespread injuries, being reported by U.S. service members returning from the recent conflicts overseas, and by post 9/11 veterans.
These injuries not only can pose significant problems with a person's communication abilities, they are costly as well.
According to Kay Miller in an article written for the Center for Public Integrity, citing data published by the Hearing Center of Excellence in 2010, "Hearing maladies cost more than $1.4 billion in veteran's disability payments annually. Additionally, at least $216 million was spent that same year for hearing aids and related devices."
Miller also cited a 2010 spending report, stating Veterans Affairs buys one in every five hearing aids sold annually in the United States. At about $350-$400 per hearing aid, that adds up to quite a bit of taxpayers' money.
The Army Hearing Program (AHP) was established to help prevent hearing loss in Soldiers and other noise-exposed government employees. It was designed to: ensure hearing testing was done annually; educate people on hearing loss; provide them with properly fitted hearing protection devices (HPDs); and help people maintain the ability to effectively communicate in the future.
Hearing is a critical sense to survivability, on and off the job, but especially on the battlefield. Unlike other senses, it never turns off, even when a person is sleeping. Hearing is also important in keeping people alive by alerting them to possible dangers.
But not only that, it keeps people connected to their surroundings, and to others in the world around them. People with significant hearing loss tend to withdraw from social situations because they are unable to follow ongoing conversations without significant mental effort, especially in the presence of background noise.
Rather than be embarrassed, many with hearing loss tend to disengage and/or make excuses as to why they are not engaging in conversations.
Or, they become frustrated or agitated with misunderstood conversations, which make it equally as difficult for family members who are trying to communicate with them.
Communicating with a person who has a hearing loss can be extremely frustrating.
Maj. Gen. Mark McDonald, Fires Center of Excellence and Fort Sill commanding general, understands all too well the negative effects of hearing loss. Diagnosed with significant high-frequency hearing loss over 12 years ago, and the associated and annoying tinnitus (also known as ringing in the ears), McDonald reported he was not always diligent about wearing HPDs early in his career, and is now paying the price.
When asked how his hearing loss has affects his daily life, the general replied, "I don't hear everything I used to be able to hear, and I have to really focus on what's being said, and ask for people to repeat things sometimes. It's annoying."
For people like McDonald, many with hearing loss wish they had been more diligent in protecting their hearing when the were younger and around loud sounds.
"When you are younger, you aren't thinking about hearing loss being a real possibility, but it is," said McDonald.
Unfortunately, for those requiring hearing assistance, like McDonald, hearing aids do not restore hearing to what it originally was. Hearing aids can be annoying, costly and cumbersome to wear.
Most people who wear hearing aids wish they didn't have to, but it's too late for them.
Another thing to remember is the damaging effects of non-occupationally-related noise exposure. McDonald brought up the fact that he is now very diligent about wearing his HPDs when working with any type of noise-generating equipment, such as power tools.
Unfortunately, most people don't even think about wearing HPDs around loud noise sources like motorcycles, chain saws, nail guns, loud music, power tools, hunting rifles and small weapons fire.
These types of noises can be just as damaging to the ears as the artillery weapons fire that literally vibrate the windows and shake the houses of those people who live around Fort Sill.
Yes, even though these "sounds of freedom" are inspiring to many in the military as our military members train; remember, if those weapons systems are causing houses to vibrate and shake, imagine what they doing to the inner ear and hearing mechanisms of those who are near when those weapons are fired?
Impulse noises, such as those produced by artillery fire, rifles and small arms are most damaging to the ears because the ears' mechanical components (the middle ear bones) do not have time to react and stiffen with impulse noises. Once the loud sound has passed through the middle ear and into the inner system (the cochlea), the damage to the inner ear has already occurred, causing hearing loss and eventual communication challenges. Even a one-time loud impulse noise exposure can cause significant hearing damage.
Some patients have experienced significant hearing loss after just one incident of firing a rifle, without wearing hearing protection, whether on firing ranges and while hunting.
Another goal of the AHP is to educate Soldiers annually on hearing loss due to noise exposure, and how to properly fit, wear and care for hearing protective devices while on and off the job. Routinely wearing HPDs while training and around recreational noise minimizes the compounding effect of noise over time should you be unexpectedly caught in a real-life blast, or exchange of fires, without hearing protection.
Parents should monitor the levels of music their children are listening to especially when using headphones. That direct input of loud music into their ears can be even more damaging than loud music heard through regular speakers.
McDonald emphasized one aspect of good hearing and anything that degrades this vital sense.
"Hearing loss is a real thing. You can toughen your body, but you cannot toughen your ears. You have to protect your hearing, period," he said.
No one is exempt when their hearing goes unprotected. As for what type of style of hearing protection is best, the answer is simple; it's the hearing protection that is worn.