Hearing loss is awful no matter how it happens. I’m sure it has been stellar to play guitar for The Who, as Pete Townshend has done for decades. Sadly though he now suffers from serious hearing loss and tinnitus. Townshend contracted noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) after years standing too close to powerful amplifiers projecting extremely loud rock music. Eric Clapton has also suffered hearing loss because of his work as a blues guitarist and rock musician. Townshend and Clapton have had legendary careers, but their suffering today from hearing loss is very real and awful.
The reality is, anyone who works in loud environments can suffer NIHL. Musicians, engine mechanics, construction workers, miners, and farmers are all susceptible to hearing loss from the work they do in loud environments and with loud equipment. (I’ve even read that the squeal of a pig can reach decibels of 115, louder than a power tool!)
Perhaps the worst cruelty occurs when members of our armed services suffer hearing loss. These are people who volunteer to keep us safe. These are people who choose a career which may call for them to go to war and fight and possibly die to protect the rest of us. Of course you would expect that the least we would do as a nation is to send these men and women out to train and serve with the safest possible equipment. Sadly, though, news reports are emerging that military service members were issued defective earplugs that may have caused permanent hearing damage to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. These earplugs were developed by the Aearo family of companies, which was then bought out by 3M Company. The earplugs were called Dual-Ended Combat Arms Earplugs (CAEv2). And between 2003-2015, Aearo and 3M sold millions of pairs of these earplugs to the branches of the armed forces. If you served in the military during this period and were issued dual-sided earplugs (with a distinctive olive and yellow color), you got the Combat Arms Earplugs.
And these earplugs were defective and did not work as promised.* The result has been thousands and thousands of soldiers who have needlessly suffered noise-induced hearing loss.
Let’s take a look at the kinds of permanent hearing damage that can be caused from exposure to loud noises while wearing defective earplugs:
Tinnitus is a perception of noise or ringing in the ears. The sound the tinnitus-sufferer hears is not real but rather a phantom sound. A person with tinnitus may hear a phantom buzzing, ringing, humming, hissing, or roaring in the ears. It can occur intermittently or all the time. The condition can vary from mild to debilitating. I’ve heard reports from soldiers who must sleep with the television volume turned on very loud simply to attempt sleep.
For mild tinnitus, a noise machine can mask the noise and permit the injured person to work or read or sleep. For others, tinnitus can make it impossible to work, sleep, relax.
Exposure to loud noises, such as rock concerts or hunting rifles, or job environments with consistently loud noises, such as factories or farms, can cause permanent hearing loss. Training and military combat is loud and can easily cause hearing loss or damage without proper hearing protection. Prolonged exposure to loud noises may cause the most damage, but even a single sudden loud event, without hearing protection, can cause permanent hearing loss.
Some signs of hearing loss include muffled sounds or speech, or a difficulty understanding words, particularly in a noisy setting like a party or a crowd. Some hearing loss victims can’t hear specific sounds like consonants and thus can’t understand simple conversations. High frequency sounds can be lost. As with tinnitus, hearing loss can be mild or severe. Some people suffer such hearing loss that they cannot function in normal settings.
For some soldiers, the psychological effects of hearing damage are the the worst. Hearing loss can be isolating, because you often can’t hear normal conversation, or even your baby crying in the next room. Some people with hearing loss report symptoms of stress or anxiety. Others with hearing loss suffer from insomnia. People can suffer feelings of isolation and depression caused by hearing damage.
The modest good news is that some hearing damage can be treated. The bad news is that most hearing damage is permanent. No matter the severity, noise-induced hearing loss is a serious injury. And for the military at least, it didn’t have to happen this way.
If you served in the military and now suffer hearing damage, give me a call: 919.546.8788.
* According to dozens of news reports, court documents, and individual stories.