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The impact of noise induced hearing loss and tinnitus on military personnel and their families

By Gruffydd Owen, a specialist military injuries lawyer at Irwin Mitchell

This week is Deaf Awareness Week, a week intended to raise awareness surrounding deafness. As specialists in military injuries we sadly often meet individuals who have suffered noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) and / or tinnitus which has had a significant impact upon them and ruined their lives, relationships and career.

Symptoms of NIHL

The effect of NIHL and tinnitus can be devastating and far-reaching; it is not as simple as needing to turn the TV up or asking others to repeat themselves. Those suffering from NIHL will often find themselves having issues which severely impact every aspect of their life from their mental health to their work and relationships.

Typical signs and symptoms of NIHL include

  • Being unable to hear conversations when there is background noise
  • Having the TV turned up louder
  • Asking people to repeat themselves
  • Mishearing what is being said
  • Struggling to hear certain pitches or frequencies

Detecting NIHL

In the Military, hearing loss is usually picked up through routine hearing tests before these symptoms become intrusive. This level of screening allows protective measures to be put in place to prevent further damage but once the damage is done it will not improve; the hearing loss will become more noticeable as an individual ages as their hearing naturally declines.

The Military is meant to test everyone annually, although this is not always the case.

Individuals suffering from NIHL will often also suffer from a persistent ringing/whining/buzzing in their ears known as tinnitus. This condition often becomes more noticeable in quiet environments and is often described as being worse when sufferers are trying to sleep.

NIHL can be present without tinnitus, and vice versa, but the two are often present together.

The impact of NIHL and tinnitus can be profound on sufferers.

Mental health impact

We frequently see clients who also suffer from mental health difficulties as a result of their hearing loss and tinnitus with people often feeling isolated by their condition as they avoid socialising because of the difficulties in hearing others. This can often lead to a sense of embarrassment and heightened self-awareness.

Tinnitus can also significantly affect sleep, which can further worsen the mental health of sufferers as they feel unable to rest properly as a result of their symptoms. A high proportion of tinnitus sufferers report feelings of low mood and anxiety, with some becoming suicidal.

The mental health impact of hearing loss and tinnitus cannot be overlooked as it will often have a much wider impact than the initial hearing loss/tinnitus itself, and will affect not just the sufferer, but also their relationships with their families and friends. Many sufferers become withdrawn and stop socialising as a result of their condition.

YourNorth, is a South Wales based community interest company whiich provide mental health training and support to veterans. Some of those have left the Military as a result of NIHL, and so YourNorth has provided the following comment:

“Conditions such as NIHL and tinnitus can take the joy out of life, resulting in unwanted thoughts, feelings and behaviours, all of which affect our ability to live authentically and with purpose. There is support available for sufferers, but the loss of confidence and difficulties being around others caused by these symptoms can make it more difficult for sufferers to seek the help and support that could benefit them."

Impact on military careers

Military personnel who have suffered NIHL also usually report significant issues with their work. This is to be expected because of the nature of serving in the Military, with a high level of fitness a pre-requisite of most roles.

Most military personnel with NIHL find themselves medically downgraded and placed on specific programmes to avoid noise, whilst some find themselves medically discharged altogether. This can have a significant impact on the sense of purpose and wellbeing of those suffering with NIHL, with many struggling to come to terms with the loss of their careers. 

Subsequent civilian roles are often vastly different to their role within the Military as they have to find roles avoiding noise, meaning they regularly cannot make use of the skills gained in the Military. This frequently means that sufferers have reduced earnings as a result of their condition.  

From our work supporting clients who have suffered NIHL, we are familiar with the challenges posed by this often avoidable condition.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting military personnel affected by NIHL at our dedicated Military Hearing Loss Claims section.