JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — A recent report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs revealed more than 10 percent of all veteran disability claims in fiscal year of 2011 were due to tinnitus, an early sign of hearing loss.
In the military community, the most common cause of tinnitus is noise exposure, said Navy Lt. Amy McArthur, a Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune audiologist. Tinnitus is commonly described as a ringing in the ears, and can vary in degree from an uncommon, annoying occurrence to a constant, distracting and sometimes painful ringing noise.
“A lot of the military occupational specialties that Marines will occupy involves either shooting a weapon or being near demolitions, generator noise and engine noise,” McArthur said, adding that 18 percent of active duty Camp Lejeune Marines are currently suffering from some degree of tinnitus.
Infantry Marines are the most at risk for developing tinnitus, as 29 percent of the Marines in that MOS suffer from the disorder, McArthur said.
Similarly, 21 percent of artillery Marines suffer from tinnitus, as do 19 percent of Marines working in explosive ordnance disposal.
Surprisingly, Marines working in the aviation community are the least likely to suffer from tinnitus: Only 8 percent of aviation maintainers have complained of tinnitus and 12 percent of pilots suffer from the disease.
“There’s a culture of prevention amongst those aviation MOSs,” McArthur said. “They wouldn’t think of going out on the flight line without wearing their hearing protection. They’re also a lot more motivated to protect their hearing because they want to maintain their flight status. You can’t be a pilot and have hearing loss.”
Tinnitus, as well as hearing loss, is irreversible and permanent, meaning once the damage has been done to the ear, there’s no replacing or repairing the cells. Because there truly is no cure for tinnitus or hearing loss, prevention is key for Marines on Camp Lejeune, McArthur said.
Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune frequently instructs units and individual service members on the importance of wearing hearing protection like earplugs or earmuffs when shooting guns or participating in other high noise activities.
The hospital has three mobile hearing conservation trucks they can deploy to units to assess troop hearing loss as requested.
“We can go out and provide doorstep screening to the Marines,” McArthur said, adding that the trucks allow them to quickly assess each service member for hearing loss without the need for the Marine to ever leave their unit. Each truck can test six Marines at a time.
Additionally, the hospital reports the percentages of hearing loss to each unit commanding officer twice a year, allowing the officers to make a plan to educate and prevent further hearing loss within the unit.
Although there is no cure for hearing loss or tinnitus, McArthur said there are ways to help a service member cope with tinnitus should they develop it, to include teaching them to avoid quiet situations, so their brain can focus on something besides the ringing in their ears.
Second to tinnitus, actual hearing loss is the next most claimed disability, with 60,229 veterans — or 7.5 percent of all disability claims — citing hearing loss in FY 2011, according to the report from the VA.