Traumatic Hearing Loss: Now All War Wounds Are Visible

The night is as dark as pitch.

The headlights of the armored Humvee are dimmed to draw less attention as the troops move through a small village on night patrol. The most dangerous assignment in war-torn Iraq a few years back. Insurgents were everywhere and attacks on American troops were common.

The norm. So the men in the Humvee move slowly, cautiously through the narrow village streets, looking for the bad guys.

And the bad guys are looking for the troops. As the Humvee turns a corner, Staff Sgt. Chris Mountjoy opens the door at the precise moment that insurgents detonate a powerful IED – improvised explosive device.

Fortunately, the armored door protects Sgt. Mountjoy from the deadly shrapnel. However, the concussive force blows the sergeant 30 feet through the air. It also caused hearing loss by rupturing his ear drums and damaging the inner ear sensory hair cells that allow us to hear. When physical damage to the hearing mechanism has occurred due to excessive noise, it is referred to as acoustic trauma.

The sergeant couldn’t hear a sound for three days and, today, through the use of hearing aids, Sgt. Mountjoy is able to continue his service to his country in an administrative capacity at Fort Carson’s 10th Combat Hospital.

A Life-Altering Event in Service to the Country

Chris Mountjoy is only 27-years-old. His hearing is severely impaired by experiencing acoustic trauma. And though Chris has regained some natural hearing, and because he uses quality digital hearing aids, Chris is able to lead what appears to be a normal life with family and work.

However Chris and his family have had to adapt to the hearing loss experienced by a husband and father. For example, Chris reports that he won’t let his kids play out of his sight, fearing he couldn’t hear a child who needed “Daddy’s help” - small things that develop in the daily routine after experiencing traumatic hearing loss – especially on the battlefield.

Americans owe Chris, and men and women like him, an unpayable debt of gratitude and our best wishes for a life that continues to improve in quality.

Traumatic Hearing Loss More Likely in Battle Field

military tank
On Alert in Iraq

In 2005, the American Journal of Audiology – a highly-respected professional Audiology journal – released the results of a study conducted on soldiers deployed to the war zone in Iraq between April, 2003 and March, 2004 – at the height of the insurgency when American troops were under attack almost daily. (Thankfully, we’ve seen a tremendous improvement in our troops’ safety in recent years.)

The report, published in the Journal showed that those deployed to battle zones were 50% more likely to experience traumatic hearing loss than those troops who were not deployed to Iraq. With statistics like that from a resource as respected as the Journal, the military has since taken a good, long look at the problem.

The goal? Medical solutions available in the field at the site of an explosion where hearing loss is expected.

The Army’s Role in Hearing Loss Prevention

Fort Carson, in Colorado, is the center of operations for the study of traumatic hearing loss among troops. Currently, initial studies show that “additional hearing experts on staff and a sharper focus on prevention can cut down on hearing disabilities.”

The Senior Audiologist leading the study group, Capt. Leanne Cleveland, stated that so far the Army’s efforts are working.

"For soldiers to be successful on the battlefield, they have to shoot, move, communicate," Cleveland said. "Hand signals are not always enough. If you're getting a radio transmission and the command is ‘fall back' and you think the command is ‘attack,' that's huge."

The military is also examining conditions associated with hearing loss including depression and suicide, both front-and-center concerns for military researchers.

There has been criticism from various fronts within the medical community that the Army has been slow to react to the problem of traumatic hearing loss. However, the Fort Carson team of two audiologists and five hearing technicians are focused on rehabilitative services as well as pro-active, “boots-on-the-ground” prevention.

According to a report in The Colorado Springs Gazette, the Fort Carson unit has ordered and delivered literally thousands of protective hearing devices to suit all combat conditions. In the past, troops have been reluctant to wear ear plugs that block out the sound of potential danger, so “hear-through” devices have been distributed.

Further, in other research, the Army has determined that immediate treatment of traumatic hearing loss in the battlefield can prevent worsening damage. The powerful concussion produced by a nearby explosion damages the hearing mechanism, which then sends out free radicals – toxic molecules that quickly cause further damage and hearing loss.

Using anti-oxidants to combat free radicals has been shown, at least in initial studies, to mitigate further damage after one of our troops experiences an explosion that results in hearing loss.

These pro-active steps will have a dramatic impact on hearing loss caused by battlefield trauma.

In the meantime, Chris Mountjoy helps his fellow soldiers adapt to battlefield hearing loss while working at Fort Carson. And though his life has been changed forever, Chris has shown the inner strength to adapt and thrive despite his sacrifice.

“I’ve learned to live with it rather than fight it,” Chris said.

A lesson that any person living with hearing loss can take to heart.

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