As I reported last week, more people in this country experience hearing loss, and the negative experiences that come with it, than you might imagine. One estimate by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders states that nearly 48 million Americans are afflicted with some form of hearing loss. As significant as that number is, it does not account for a very significant population not addressed: military service members and veterans. Let’s correct that now. According to a report in Drugwatch, an online news site providing information about medications, medical devices and general health, “military service members have a greater risk for hearing loss than civilians.”
“Today, more than 1.25 million veterans suffer from hearing loss, with nearly two million suffering from tinnitus (ringing, buzzing or whistling in the ears),” says Ed Timperlake, former assistant secretary for the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs in a 2020 Military.com report. “Combined, they represent the top two service-connected disabilities addressed by the VA.”
The Drugwatch report notes that in 2016 alone, the American Academy of Audiology shows that “more than a million veterans received disability compensation for hearing loss, and about 1.6 million received compensation for tinnitus.”
According to the American Tinnitus Association, tinnitus can be a symptom of roughly 200 health problems. “Some people can develop tinnitus for no obvious reason,” they add. “Scientists still haven’t agreed upon what happens in the brain to create the illusion of sound when there is none.”
Says a USA Today report, a study published in August in the research journal JAMA Neurology suggests that this little talked about or understood condition known as tinnitus is now being viewed as a major problem worldwide by more than 120 million people. Their study’s findings align with earlier estimates by the ATA that suggests that nearly 15% of people (more than 50 million Americans) experience tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a condition that can be either be temporary or chronic. It’s not a disease and the NIDCD does not list it as a sign of a serious health problem. “But if it’s loud and persistent, it can cause memory and concentration problems, fatigue, anxiety and depression,” they note. For most forms of tinnitus, there is “no scientifically validated cure.”
For military personnel, hearing loss and tinnitus are the two most common, yet least visible, injuries. Unaddressed, these damaging conditions can affect military preparedness.
States the Drugwatch report, “Healthy hearing is an asset for service member survival on the battlefield, as it affects the ability to communicate information necessary to plan and complete a mission.” Says the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence, “Given the links between warrior health, safety, quality of life, economic impact and mission accomplishment — or defending our nation and its freedoms — hearing is a crucial sense that must be protected.” It is also noted that hearing issues affect a “service members’ ability to interact with friends and loved ones back home and be a part of their community.” Because there are no standard tests for it, and the cause of the ringing often can’t be identified, tinnitus has proved difficult for the VA to treat beyond hearing aids that mask the sound and things like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Recognizing hearing loss and tinnitus as continuing prevalent problems for service members, around 2003 the military began providing standard-issue hearing protection to service members. Earplugs became standard-issue across the services. Reports Drugwatch, in 2018, a whistleblower complaint accused 3M (which had been selling earplugs to several branches of the United States military from 2003 to 2015) of “selling defective earplugs to the military and exposing unsuspecting soldiers to hearing damage” and, according to the complaint, millions of soldiers used the defective earplugs, and thousands may have suffered hearing loss and tinnitus as a result. The report goes on to say that “3M paid $9.1 million to the United States Department of Justice to resolve allegations, though they admitted no wrongdoing.”
Since then, hundreds of veterans have filed lawsuits against 3M. As reported by Fox Business, in March of this year, a Pensacola, Florida, jury awarded $50 million to an Army veteran who claimed earplugs made by 3M caused him to suffer hearing damage. It represents the second-largest verdict related to the product: “In January, a federal jury awarded $110 million to two Army veterans who claimed they suffered hearing damage because of the product.” According to Fox Business, lawyers for 3M indicated that they plan to appeal the verdict. “More than 280,000 former and current military members have sued 3M over the earplugs,” they report.
Timperlake believes that the VA is doing a good job of addressing this health problem, but the Defense Department is now in “catch-up” mode. “The Pentagon is now testing several different styles of hearing protection for troops in the field, and confidence is high that the next generation of combat hearing protection will represent a substantial improvement,” he says. “Once these troops muster out of uniform and transition to veteran status, a large part of the challenge in helping these vets with hearing loss is technological. Low-cost hearing aids that simply amplify sound do little good, often making background noise too loud to provide any meaningful improvement in hearing conversation, music and other audible intelligence.”