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18 January 2017 | Comment | Article by Simon Ellis

Military hearing loss: The hidden injury of war

As part of the Armed Forces, you’re used to accepting the conditions under which you operate without complaint. You joined up for the action and excitement of military service and for the adventure of a lifetime. But what you got back was so much more; serving your country, protecting its values, looking out for the safety of your family, friends and everyone back home.

What you didn’t bargain on was losing your hearing. It’s a common problem, with an estimated 300,000 armed forces personnel suffering with hearing loss caused by the relentless noise of military life.

But how could this have happened?

Hearing loss and tinnitus is much more common in the military population than the general public. In fact, by the age of 75, service personnel are 3 ½ times more likely to experience hearing difficulties than the general public. Almost every soldier, sailor, airman or marine will be exposed to hazardous noise levels at some point in their career.

Life in the armed forces is loud. The law currently states that ear protection must be used when noise levels exceed 85db in noise when averaged out over the course of a working day. That’s about the same volume as a hairdryer.

Without adequate hearing protection these levels of noise can do some serious damage to your hearing and many weapons emit sounds that exceed the maximum achievable protection that some forms of standard hearing protection can offer. Double hearing protection can be a solution in certain situations and means both earmuffs and ear plugs are used together.

Take fire drills. The noise emitted from small fire arms is astonishingly loud. Pistol fire can reach 157dB, SA 80 rifles 156dB and grenades an ear-popping 164dB. However it’s not just fire drills that can cause damage, even the military band is a total racket at up to 145dB.

How did you lose your hearing?

Damage to your ears is a covert injury and isn’t visible like a burnt hand, a broken leg or a black eye. You can’t see it and its effect may be gradual, so you may start to think it’s the ‘norm’.

The ear is a delicate and complex system. The inner ear or ‘cochlea’ is a fluid-filled chamber resembling a snail’s shell. When sound waves enter the cochlea, the waves move through the fluids, activating tiny sensory hair cells. These cells pick up the movement and trigger an electrical signal in the auditory nerve, sending a message to the brain that you have heard a sound.

Hearing loss can occur if these tiny hairs are damaged by exposure to loud sounds. Exposure to a very loud one off noise over 140db can damage these delicate hairs in a very short space of time. A doctor might refer to this type of damage as ‘NIHL’ (noise induced hearing loss) or ‘acoustic trauma’.

The doctor might talk about ‘tinnitus’ if you have a constant ringing or buzzing sound in your ears, or have poor balance. You may have difficulty listening to high frequency noise such as whistles or buzzers or have difficulty hearing certain letters, especially when there is significant background noise.

If you’re worrying about mishearing your boss, partner, children or anyone else, that anxiety could be caused by your ears failing to send sound information to your brain, not because you’re ignoring them or zoning out. Ask yourself: are certain words or sounds harder to understand than you remember?

If you can’t recall exposure to a single noise but have these symptoms, it’s possible damage has been caused by being frequently close to loud sounds, for example operating heavy-duty machinery, using weapons or travelling in tanks or planes. The doctor may say you have ‘gradual onset NIHL’. What they’re saying is that your ears were damaged by prolonged exposure to loud sounds. This sort of hearing loss worsens with continued exposure, and it may be years before any hearing problem becomes apparent, although it may still affect listening ability in earlier years.

In either case, the doctor will tell you that loud noise destroys hairs and structures within the ears that transmit audio information to the brain. The bad news is that once damaged, they don’t grow back. But the good news is that by seeking help, you’re on the path to a resolution which is much better than suffering in silence.

Is There Support Available?

While you can’t repair the damage to your ears, technology can boost the sounds you’re struggling to hear. We’re not talking about an embarrassing OAP-style hearing aid either. This is discrete, state-of-the-art kit, designed to support sounds across all the frequencies you’ve lost. It’ll focus specifically on cranking up speech frequencies and suppressing background noise.

These clever contraptions are not always available on the NHS and could set you back several thousand pounds but that doesn’t mean you can’t have them.

The military runs a number of compensation schemes for serving and former serving personnel who have been injured as a result of their service in the armed forces. If your disablement was caused prior to 6 April 2005 and you are no longer serving this would be the War Pension Scheme (WPS). The Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS) was established for soldiers injured after 2005 who are still in active service. The criteria to claim for both schemes is quite tough, so get ready for some in-depth medicals and quite a bit of paperwork coming your way.

Sadly, claims for deafness are often rejected under these compensation schemes and large numbers of veterans are turned away with no support. Some armed forces personnel have also been advised that there is no alternative route to claiming financial support as a result of military deafness, but that is not the case.

Soldiers who don’t meet the demanding criteria for the compensation schemes, but are struggling with their hearing, can get compensation through a civil claim. You may be entitled to receive an award to buy the right hearing aids and upgrade them as your hearing changes with age, as well as to compensate you for loss of earnings if military deafness has affected your ability to work. You may be able to claim even if you were unsuccessful under the scheme.

You can still bring a civil claim for compensation, even if you have been one of the few soldiers who have succeeded with a WPS or AFCS claim.

Follow this link to watch our video and find out more about military hearing loss

Let someone fight your corner for a change and help you get hold of the best equipment possible for your hearing, drop an email to Hugh James’ specialist Military Deafness team ([email protected]) who can help you take the next steps. Their advice is free, and they could even represent you on a no win, no fee basis.

Author bio

Simon Ellis is a Partner with Hugh James and has worked with the firm for more than 25 years, having trained and qualified here. Simon heads up the Military Department, advising and assisting current and former military personnel with various health conditions and injuries. He specialises in claims such as hearing loss, non-freezing cold injuries, compartment syndrome and military injury cases. He is often asked to advise on more unusual claims in the military context.

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