With help, veterans with tinnitus, hearing loss can thrive
There are countless ways military veterans have to reintegrate into civilian life, which may be even more challenging with injuries and serious health issues. However, not all the injuries incurred by veterans are ones that are readily visible. In fact, there are health-related conditions you can’t see, yet are strongly prevalent among former service members.
Veterans, their loved ones and even the general public may be unaware of the top two service-related injuries impacting veterans: tinnitus and hearing loss. As an audiologist who has had the honor of meeting many former service members during my career, I am passionate about educating individuals on how these conditions impact overall quality of life, especially when left untreated. Contrary to popular belief, tinnitus and hearing loss are not the same. They affect people differently, but both are burdensome issues for veterans as well as active-duty military personnel.
Tinnitus, which is characterized by a ringing, roaring, clicking, hissing or buzzing noise in the ears, is the most common of the two. More than 1.7 million veterans are currently receiving help from the Department of Veterans Affairs to treat tinnitus. It is difficult to treat because it can change throughout the day and the dynamic of tinnitus varies greatly from person to person. A patient I worked with previously compared his tinnitus to the roaring sound of a semi-truck engine. Another person could report tinnitus with a softer tonal-like quality, but all cases have the potential to have a negative impact on daily life. For anyone living with tinnitus, there are treatment options available.
Comparatively, hearing loss is the second most common injury our nation’s military heroes face. The VA is currently treating more than 1.1 million veterans with hearing loss. Veterans often suffer from noise-induced hearing loss because of repeated exposure to loud sounds inherent in military service. Veterans who served after September 2001 are four times more likely to have severe hearing loss than nonveterans. That this younger demographic is experiencing a greater degree of hearing loss stresses the importance of this issue and seeking treatment as quickly as possible.
Tinnitus and hearing loss may seem trivial to an outsider looking in on those who have served our nation around the globe or even on U.S. soil. But, these two common and invisible service-related injuries have the potential to cause significant health problems in the long term.
The reality of the situation is that if left untreated, veterans may be at even greater risk for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Post-traumatic stress may exacerbate the dangers of mental health issues in combination with hearing loss or tinnitus. Treating these prevalent hearing health injuries sooner rather than later has the likelihood of improving a veteran’s overall health.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly made life even more difficult for those with hearing loss. Before the pandemic, people with hearing problems could rely on facial cues, lip reading and being in closer proximity to the person talking. Now, face masks and social distancing have made that harder, if not impossible. These unprecedented conditions are making effective communication extremely difficult and augmenting feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It hasn’t been an easy endeavor, but solutions to these problems are coming to fruition. New-age hearing technology adjusts to the listening environment, making hearing easier in tough situations — such as conversations with mask wearers or while outside on a windy day. Seeing how these advances can help a veteran hear better and live better is incredibly impactful. Hearing aids do make a difference. Technology doesn’t make tinnitus go away or restore hearing that has been lost, but it can make both much easier to manage and lead to a more connected life.
Veterans living with untreated hearing loss don’t have to miss out on memorable moments. Hearing technology can improve the quality of life for veterans living with tinnitus and hearing loss. I wish to see more veterans enjoying life and doing what they love without the fear and anxiety associated with invisible, hearing-related injuries.
Dr. Sara Burdak is the chief audiology officer for Eden Prairie-Minn.-based Starkey, which provides hearing technologies to the VA.