Hearing loss is damage to the ear(s) that impairs an individual's ability to perceive sound. The impairment ranges from mild hearing loss to total hearing loss and can either be temporary or permanent depending on the cause.
There are three main forms of hearing loss: conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss and mixed hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss is caused by damage to the outer or middle ear and can usually be repaired or will heal over time, making it unlikely to result in total hearing loss. Sensorineural hearing loss is caused by damage to the inner ear (cochlea) or the retrocochlear nerves (nerves that connect the ear to the brain). Unlike conductive hearing loss, sensorineural hearing loss is often total and irreparable. Mixed hearing loss is a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. It can either be caused at once, or be caused by a buildup of ailments to the ear.
Conductive hearing loss is usually caused by temporary factors. Many illnesses or some drugs, such as aspirin, can cause partial hearing loss as a symptom or a side-effect. Other causes can be foreign objects caught in the ear, malformation of the outer ear from birth or accident, tumors growing within the ear or even something as simple as a buildup of ear wax. Sensorineural hearing loss can be caused by the same things as conductive hearing loss. It can also be suffered after noise exposure, head trauma or simply the natural aging process. Mixed hearing loss is simply a combination of conductive and sensorineural hearing loss and can be caused by anything that would inflict both forms of hearing loss or be a compound of different sources.
Two of the main causes of sensorineural hearing loss can be encountered commonly in the military. The first, head trauma, is the more unpredictable of the two because it is all but impossible to tell how the body will react. A single blow to the head can damage the ear, while multiple blows may cause no immediate damage to a person's hearing. The second cause, noise-induced hearing loss, is caused by sustained exposure to dangerous levels of sound. Anything at or above 85 decibels will eventually cause damage to the ear.
A decibel is a measurement that determines the noise level of a sound. Decibels are measured by studying the amount of pressure a sound places on the ear drum, which then transmits them through the ear. In higher decibels, the amount of pressure placed upon the ear can damage the sensitive hair cells of the inner ear. Once damaged, these cells cannot regrow or repair, so any damage incurred is permanent. It is important to note that the further an individual is from the noise source the lower a sound will be when it reaches the ear, so decibels are not exact measurements.
The following are decibel levels associated with common military noises. These are averages and will vary with distance, conditions and types of equipment.
Symptoms of hearing loss will vary depending on its cause. If an individual is suffering from hearing loss as a symptom of a disease, other symptoms may help determine its cause. A veteran who is using medication to treat a disease and notices a hearing loss should consult a doctor to determine whether changing to another medication or a lower dosage is appropriate. The main symptom of noise-induced hearing loss is tinnitus or a sudden decrease in sound perception. With head trauma, the symptoms can be the same as noise-induced hearing loss or a faint popping noise which signals damage to the ear drum.
Tinnitus is usually a symptom of noise-induced hearing loss. It typically manifests itself as a ringing in the ear, although it can sound like clicking, popping, snapping or whistling. One of the causes of tinnitus is damage to the nerves of the inner ear. If damaged enough, the nerves can become bent and constantly register sound input as they will be making continuous contact with the other hairs of the ear. In other cases, tinnitus can be caused by a tumor in the ear which allows the ear to hear the blood passing through the tumor.
Sadly, most cases of hearing loss cannot be treated. When it is a symptom of a larger ailment, hearing loss can be recovered when the disease is treated. With noise-induced hearing loss or head trauma, the damage is usually permanent; however, technology has made it possible to compensate for hearing loss. A hearing aid can be used to mimic the outer and middle ear if they are damaged. For the cochlea (inner ear), a cochlear implant can mimic the nerves that are damaged and relay sound to the brain.
Veterans who have experienced hearing loss or suffer from tinnitus should contact their local County Veteran Service Office to evaluate whether to file a claim for VA compensation. If awarded a disability rating, the veteran may be eligible for monthly compensation and hearing aids, repairs, and future batteries could all be provided at no charge.
For more information about hearing loss please visit the VA's Hearing Loss page.
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