• By: Eric Murphy

A Less-Than Silent Epidemic

Photo by MCPL Robert Bottrill.

Tinnitus is a word you may not know, but it describes something you’ve probably felt. It’s that ringing in your ears, the one that bubbles to the surface when you’re lying in your quiet room after a rock concert or a baseball game where the home team scored just a few more runs than your eardrums probably needed. If you think about it, you may be able to hear that sound right now.

As you might have guessed, tinnitus is a sign of hearing damage. For most people, it’s just an occasional annoyance, some even consider it a welcome side effect, proof of a good night. But for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, especially veterans, the ringing won’t go away.

It’s easy to imagine why veterans are disproportionately affected by hearing damage. Gunfire, artillery and airplane engines are a lot louder than most drum kits. In 2014, the US Department of Veterans Affairs revealed that tinnitus had become the number one disability claim for US veterans, higher than both PTSD and hearing loss, although the three often come hand in hand.

The numbers for Canadian veterans aren’t as well documented, but considering Canadians face the same sounds as American soldiers, with arguably less protection, there’s no reason to believe that the danger isn’t just as present here as it is across the border.

Rodney Taylor
Rodney Taylor, doctor of Audiology. Photo by Paul Couvrette.

“In the US, there are special plugs that can reduce sound 60 or 70 decibels…the most you can do here with the military that I’ve seen is around 30 decibels,” says Rodney Taylor, a Doctor of Audiology who has worked with a number of Canadian veterans through his three Advanced Hearing Aid Clinics in Ottawa.

Clinics like Taylor’s can treat tinnitus to the point that the patient doesn’t notice the buzzing anymore, but the biggest barrier for veterans is funding. Although tinnitus is very common among soldiers, it’s not covered by Veterans Affairs in the same way that more widely known issues like hearing loss are.

“It is a lack of understanding on the part of Veterans Affairs,” Taylor says.

Although Veterans Affairs Canada provides coverage for hearing loss, it often fails to recognize that hearing loss and tinnitus can come separately. Patients who don’t meet the department’s hearing loss criteria can have severe tinnitus that affects their lives just as negatively as hearing loss would, but they have a much smaller chance of getting coverage.

Hearing loss and tinnitus can have huge effects on a sufferer’s life, but there is another, more painful way that hearing or brain trauma can manifest. Sound sensitivity sufferers often can’t stand even low levels of noise. An average conversation can seem jarringly loud, and many people who experience this have to avoid doing things they once loved, like visiting a favourite restaurant or walking down a particularly busy street.

“These people do not leave their house,” Taylor says. He explains how one of his patients contracted a virus overseas which caused sound sensitivity, and when this person first visited Taylor’s office, he was wearing sound-dampening headphones over top of foam earplugs to keep the excruciating sounds of the outside world away.

Sound sensitivity sufferers often come to Taylor’s office simply looking for earplugs. They don’t realize that the illness is treatable.

“Sound sensitivity is my favourite because it’s such an easy fix,” says Taylor. While not every case is curable, many patients’ hearing can be returned to normal by wearing a hearing aid that constantly stimulates their brain, getting their ears used to the sound again. The treatment, Taylor says, generally takes about one to two months.

One of the most frustrating things about the varying forms of hearing damage is that sufferers, and some doctors, don’t realize they can be treated.

“I think typically veterans go to their doctors and are told to learn to live with it, they think there’s nothing that can be done,” Taylor says. “And that’s just simply not true.”