If you’ve ever experienced ringing in your ears (tinnitus), even for just a few moments, you can imagine how disruptive and even crippling it can be when it’s ongoing or frequent.
Tinnitus is often caused by age-related hearing loss and changes. It can also be caused by earwax blockage or ear bone changes. In other cases, it’s caused by certain medications, blood vessel disorders, and other chronic health conditions.
Oftentimes, an exact cause isn’t determined, although it can often be linked to inner ear hair cell damage. There are tiny, delicate hairs in your inner ear and they move in conjunction with the pressure of sound waves. Their movement triggers the release of an electrical signal from an auditory nerve to your brain, which your brain interprets as sounds. But once those inner ear hair cells are damaged, they can send random electrical impulses to your brain resulting in tinnitus.
Interested in learning more about tinnitus? Take a look at this blog post for a list of tinnitus facts.
Tinnitus and veterans
While tinnitus can happen to anyone, today we’re focusing on one group who is disproportionately affected by this condition. In many cases, their tinnitus is brought on by exposure to frequent and repetitive loud noises, including bomb blasts and gunfire – veterans.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is one the most prevalent service-connected disabilities for veterans, with more than 1 million veterans receiving disability compensation for the condition.
Tinnitus affects more than the ears
Evidence suggests a strong link between a veteran’s hearing and mental health. In 2015, researchers with the VA and Loma Linda University Medical School found that veterans with untreated tinnitus frequently develop anxiety, depression, or both.
Additionally, hearing loss can often lead to isolation and avoidance of social settings, limiting family and caregiver support, and exacerbating mental and physical health problems.
Untreated tinnitus can also have a deeply negative impact on a veteran’s physical health.
A 2017 study conducted by the South Texas Veterans Health Care System also reported that without intervention, veterans with hearing conditions who suffer from injuries are more likely to lack progress in their physical rehabilitation, as well as more vulnerable to life-threatening ailments and injuries.
Fortunately, there’s hope. The primary treatment for tinnitus is hearing aids. Research indicates 93 percent of hearing aid users experience a significant overall improvement in their quality of life because of their hearing aids. Such reported improvements include greater overall physical health, cognitive functioning, ability to communicate, and personal independence.
To get a firsthand perspective about the challenges veterans face when dealing with tinnitus, we interviewed a sergeant of the U.S. Army Reserve about his experience living with tinnitus and hyperacusis (increased sensitivity to sound), which affects approximately 50 percent of individuals with tinnitus.
In this interview, the sergeant shares his recommendations as well as information for anyone dealing with tinnitus and hyperacusis, including his fellow veterans.
A Veteran’s Experience
Q: What is your advice for veterans who think that they may have tinnitus and hyperacusis?
Sergeant: The first thing is to go to a medical professional that understands what you are going through. For me, that is Dr. Mattson of Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center. Secondly, stay away from loud noise. The ear condition isn’t going to get better. You can only keep it the way it is or make it worse. I strongly suggest staying away from loud noises, using masking devices that JSHC provides, and changing your lifestyle to utilize the resources you have, such as medical professionals, family, and your personal fortitude. Life is different now. Medical science cannot fix it yet, but you can make sure it’s not getting worse.
Q: What was your experience at JSHC like?
Sergeant: As you may know, the VA wait time is about a month to a month-and-a-half to see an audiologist. With this clinic, it may be just a few days until you can see an audiologist. When I met with Dr. Mattson, she truly understood what I was going through. I’m in safe hands. Dr. Mattson explained to me what I’m going through. She explained to me what can be done to normalize the situation. You cannot fix it completely, but you can improve your quality of life. She fought to authorize resources for me. I have resources like musician earplugs and a specialized hearing aid for daily use. She got this for me. She made the phone calls. She said, “This veteran needs this.”
“I enjoy being an advocate for my patients that are veterans. To me, it’s about helping them get their life back on track. There is nothing greater than giving back to someone needing the same help. Usually, they are working towards getting back to work and feeling comfortable with being in public again. It’s a hard struggle for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress and Traumatic Brain Injuries. These veterans oftentimes have hidden injuries that they feel trapped with. Having the right support makes all the difference.”
Fenja Mattson, AuD, CCC-A
Doctor of Audiology
Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center
Q: Would you recommend JSHC to other veterans dealing with tinnitus and hyperacusis issues?
Sergeant: Through all my experiences with different doctors, audiologists, and ENTs (Ear, Nose & Throat Doctor) I believe strongly whatever branch of military you served, the Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center is your best option and the best treatment that you will get.
I would ask for Dr. Mattson. She truly cares about vets. There is no cure for our condition, but there are things she can do for you to improve your quality of life. That’s what matters. The doctor cares. She knows what you are going through. She can help you with what you are going through. I believe this is the best place for vets to get treatment.
Q: What caused you to seek treatment at Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center?
Sergeant: Since being discharged from active duty, Duval County is my home. I went to a few audiologists and I went to the VA, and most of the responses I got were, “Live with it.” At that time, 2008-2009, there was limited technology, and overall my experience with audiologists and ENTs in Duval County was totally negative.
A year ago, I did research online to find which is the best clinic or who is the doctor that specializes in and understands tinnitus and hyperacusis. I found a couple of audiologists in Duval County and I met with a few of them. I found Dr. Mattson of Jacksonville Speech & Hearing Center and saw that she specializes in hearing. At that time, I came and I met her. I truly am blessed to be here and to have her as an audiologist who can understand what I’m going through.
Out of all the audiologists and ENT doctors in Duval County, including the VA, she is the primary person I would like to recommend you come and get treatment from. She is the reason I chose this place.
Q: What caused your tinnitus and hyperacusis?
Sergeant: My first assignment in the military was infantry. In infantry, we are front line troops and use our auditory system to survive in combat. Our auditory system is being used not just 12 hours a day, but 24 hours a day. You may sleep, but your auditory system is working in the background to make sure you’re not getting attacked. This is the condition for 11 months in a combat zone. Your auditory system is used and abused and, if it doesn’t recover, there will be consequences. What happened to me by the end of deployment was that everything was loud to me. Everything was bright and then the ringing came. It would go on for 10-15 seconds and I couldn’t really figure out where it came from.
Dealing with tinnitus and hyperacusis can be incredibly challenging and frustrating, but you’re not alone. Please contact us so we can help you manage and treat these and other hearing-related conditions.
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This article was updated on October 15, 2020.