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What Veterans Need to Know about Tinnitus

What do you think is the most common medical condition or disability reported by veterans: Back or neck strains? Headaches or migraines? Post-traumatic stress disorder? The answer may surprise you.

Tinnitus is widespread.

According to the US Department of Veteran Affairs, the most common reported disability by veterans is tinnitus, otherwise known as ringing in the ears. In fact, one out of ten Americans experience tinnitus. But those who serve or have served in the military are especially vulnerable.

This is because tinnitus is often the result of excessive noise exposure. From gunfire to explosions to helicopter rotors, these excessively loud sounds damage the delicate hearing cells in the inner ear, causing not only tinnitus, but also permanent hearing loss in many cases.

Tinnitus differs from person to person.

The sound of tinnitus can take many forms. It can be a sharp screech, dull hum, or soft hiss.  For others, it manifests as a continuous tone, clicking beats, or pulsating whoosh. It can be constant throughout the day or fluctuate in intensity. In some cases, tinnitus disappears either on its own or with medical attention. However, for the majority of veterans who suffer from tinnitus, it is a chronic condition.

Of those with chronic tinnitus, a large portion considers it to be a nuisance that can usually be ignored. But for others, it can significantly affect their quality of life. Studies show that nearly four in ten people experience tinnitus 80 percent of the time, and about one in five of those describe their tinnitus as disabling or nearly disabling.

Tinnitus can be caused by other factors.

Although noise exposure is the most common cause of tinnitus in veterans, it can also be triggered by other underlying medical conditions. Some of these include:

  • Certain medication
  • Head or neck trauma
  • Middle ear disease
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
  • High blood pressure
  • Metabolic disorders, such as hyperthyroidism
  • Autoimmune disorders, such as Lyme disease

As you can see, tinnitus can be a sign of serious conditions and its onset should not be dismissed lightly.

Tinnitus is related to hearing loss.

Dramatic Soldier Portrait

Hearing loss and tinnitus go hand in hand. In fact, tinnitus is often one of the first signs that hearing damage has occurred. The hearing loss can be hardly noticeable at first, but with repeated damage or compounded with the effects of aging, it can become much more apparent and hard to ignore. And it should not be ignored.

Studies have linked untreated hearing loss to a host of more serious conditions, including depression and social isolation, decline in job performance, accelerated rate of cognitive decline and loss of brain tissue, and increased risked for falls. Like tinnitus, it is a condition that requires medical attention.

Tinnitus can be treated.

If your tinnitus is the result of underlying medical conditions like those listed above, it oftentimes goes away when you receive treatment for the condition. But if the tinnitus is noise-induced, then a “cure” is harder to find. Nevertheless, tinnitus can be effectively treated and managed a variety of ways.

You may be surprised to learn that one of the most effective and common ways to ease tinnitus is by treating hearing loss. As mentioned earlier, veterans who experience tinnitus usually also have hearing loss. By treating hearing loss with amplification through hearing aids, a majority of veterans not only report improved hearing, but also less annoyance from tinnitus. In fact, many hearing aids today even feature special tinnitus therapy programs that, in addition to making environmental sounds louder, are targeted to reduce the annoyance of tinnitus.

Furthermore, there are dedicated counseling, concentration and relaxation techniques, and other therapeutic approaches that can provide relief for those who require additional support.

What to do if you experience tinnitus (or hearing loss).

If you are a veteran who experience tinnitus and/or hearing loss, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA can arrange for you to see a hearing care professional such as an otolaryngologist (ENT) or audiologist to diagnose and assess your condition. Protocols and benefits are also in place for you to receive comprehensive and individualized treatment, including hearing aids and therapy programs, to help you overcome tinnitus and hearing loss.