Soldiers’ Hearing – Collatoral Damage

Source: SSG Kyle Davis

The American Army has a problem; their soldiers are losing their hearing. According to the News Observer, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hearing loss are the two most common service related disabilities; affecting considerably more soldiers than even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In fact over 1.5 million veterans were receiving treatment for these conditions by the end of 2011.

The Hearing Health Foundation reports that there is currently no cure for the underlying cause of hearing loss or tinnitus. The effects of these problems can range from mild discomfort to almost complete hearing loss, a lack of balance, disturbed sleep and headaches to mention a few side effects. Obviously these conditions also impair soldiers’ ability to do their work as well as to function in their day-to-day lives.

The problem

While the military has made moves to curb the amount of noise its soldiers are exposed to the fact of the matter is that soldiers often operate in extremely noisy situations and are exposed to helicopters, gun fire, bomb blasts and the like – especially while on duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Looking at prevention and treatment

Ear plugs that filter

In the past soldiers were reluctant to make use of ear plugs and other forms of hearing protection as they feared they would not be able to hear a grenade pin being removed or similar important sounds.  Matters have improved however with new ear plugs which cancel the loudest noises whilst still permitting whispered conversations. The trick of course is for the soldiers to remember to wear the ear plugs – a priority that often falls by the wayside during combat situations.

The Asymmetric Operations Department have also developed what they call the ABLE (Anti-Blast Earplug) which is essentially a low cost device that functions like a poppet valve. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory reported that “In the event of a nearby explosion, it quickly closes to protect warfighters’ hearing by blocking the blast wave from the ear”. Under normal conditions the valve remains open allowing soldiers to unencumbered hearing.

The secret is in red wine

 Researchers at Henry Ford Hospital have found that nutraceuticals (Health Canada defines it as a product, isolated from food, which offers health benefits in additional to its nutritional value) found in red grapes and red wine might be able to reverse hearing loss in certain soldiers.

Targeting Tinnitus

In 2012 Science Daily wrote that a study co-authored by Susan Bowyer, Ph.D., senior bioscientific researcher at Henry Ford Hospital, showed that the MEG technique (magnetoencephalography) can be used to successfully determine where in the brain the perception of tinnitus is located, allowing doctors to target it with chemical therapies in an attempt to minimise symptoms.

While researchers and developers are making headway in terms of preventing exposure to the loud noises that cause tinnitus and lead to hearing loss, there is currently no cure although the conditions are treatable. That being said it would seem that the medical science fraternity is making headway in terms of finding a permanent solution. In the meantime prevention is better than cure, as they say.

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