Invisible disease ranges from battlefield to backyard

Story and photo by Chuck Roberts
LRMC Public Affairs

It is painless, progressive and permanent, and to make matters worse this invisible disease ranges anywhere from the battlefield of Iraq to the cozy confines of your living room.

***image1***The good news is that in almost all cases, hearing loss is preventable as long as you’re using proper ear protection, said Capt. Michael Murphy, an Army audiologist who is officer in charge of the Army Hearing Conservation Program at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Unfortunately, prevention often comes too late for a problem that can be so gradual that a person may have suffered permanent damage by the time it’s detected, said Captain Murphy, whose father now wears hearing aids after working 25 years in constant noise at a paper factory.

For others, damage can result from a single incident such as an ear plug falling out while training on the rifle range − a situation Captain Murphy said recently occurred three times in the same month.

The potential for suffering hearing loss while deployed is well documented. According to an Army study published in the December 2005 edition of the “American Journal of Audiology,” among 141,856 Soldiers redeployed from Iraq, 68.6 percent were classified with deployment-related noise-induced hearing loss compared with 4 percent for all noise-induced hearing loss categories between April 2003 and March 2004.

Downrange, hearing loss can result from more obvious situations such as firefights, mortars and improvised explosive devices, and from noise nuisance such as generators found in deployed living areas.

The effect can threaten both life and career. The sense of hearing is especially keen on the battlefield where the ability to shoot, move and communicate is critical to complete the mission, said Captain Murphy. The consequences of hearing loss can also affect the career of a servicemember in career fields requiring a minimum level of hearing.

“Most servicemembers do not want to reclassify their career path,” said Captain Murphy. “For example, if you’re an infantry Soldier you always want to remain an infantry Soldier.”

To combat the problem, the Army Hearing Program is updating its field manual and is developing a new model of the combat arms ear plug that comes in three sizes instead of one, and that can be rotated to adjust for varying noise conditions (constant noise versus impulse noise) while still allowing Soldiers to communicate. But equipment is only as good as it is applied, said Captain Murphy. If younger servicemembers see senior leaders actively enforcing the use of hearing protection, then the practice is more readily accepted. One of his patients described his first deployment downrange where enforcing hearing protection was a “big deal.” The issue, however, was not as great a concern during his subsequent deployment.

Setting that example also holds true for concerned parents who often ask Captain Murphy about the effects of earphones for portable media players such as an iPod that fit deeper into the ear canal. “If you listen at an acceptable volume, you can listen to it all day without harming your hearing,” said Captain Murphy.

Unfortunately, listening doesn’t always occur at acceptable levels, and not everyone is affected the same way by the same exposure, said Captain Murphy. There are three variables that come into play: loudness, length of exposure and individual susceptibility.

For example, while one music fan may not suffer hearing loss until attending 20 concerts, another may suffer the same amount in only five outings. Other potential domestic hearing hazards include working with power tools or activities as routine as mowing the lawn.

But unlike injuries with more obvious visible effects such as bleeding or bruising, ear damage may not become known until it’s too late, said Lt. Col. Angela Williamson, chief of the LRMC audiology and speech clinic.

“Hearing loss can be an invisible disease,” said Colonel Williamson. “You don’t miss it until you lose it, and people don’t realize how much they depend on it until they lose it.”

The ability to hear, she explained, is a 360-degree sensory ability that allows people to pick and choose what they want to hear, whether close or from a distance, or to multi-task by listening to music while at the same talking to your child.

Diminished hearing requires more focus for routine sounds associated with a cell phone or other quality of life areas such as listening to music or watching television, said Colonel Williamson.

Fortunately, protection is both affordable and easily accessible. Disposable and reusable ear protection is available at base exchanges as well as retail stores on the local economies, said Colonel Williamson. “Prevention is the key,” said Captain Murphy. “What you do today impacts your quality of life tomorrow.”