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Hearing Connects Us to the World; Protecting Your Hearing Matters

Army Capt. Theresa Galan, chief of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Hearing Conservation Clinic, provides training to soldiers on hearing loss prevention and hearing protection fitting in Vicenza, Italy, Jan. 26 (Photo by Army Staff Sgt. Jacob Sawyer).

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Driving a car, talking on the phone or just watching television – good hearing is essential to everyday life.

For service members, protecting their hearing – and the ability to handle what audiologists call "hearing critical tasks" – takes on an added level of urgency.

"When you think about a lot of the tasks that many service members do, they're not only hearing critical, they're life and death critical," said Dr. Theresa Schulz, chief of prevention and surveillance at the Defense Health Agency's Hearing Center of Excellence at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

Hearing involves not only the ability to hear sound, but also to recognize, interpret, and respond to it. Hearing is critical to warfighter and mission readiness.

"We need to be able to recognize and identify what we hear," Schulz said.

Hearing is an integral part of our daily interactions that many people take for granted. Whether it's taking orders or responding to potential danger in a combat zone, hearing is of utmost importance in the military.

"Sometimes we need to localize and communicate with whatever it is that we hear, so hearing is critical in so many things that we do," said Schulz. "There are very few things that we do within or outside of the military where hearing is not a critical aspect."

Hearing loss and degradation in service members can come from work-related or off-duty exposures.

For example, Schulz compared the noise level from a live music concert to the flight deck of an aircraft carrier or heavy munitions, and said it's "like comparing a BB gun to a howitzer...literally."

In other words, many of the noises that service members are exposed to on the job are far louder than things they encounter outside of work.

"It's also not just how loud things are, it's also how long you're exposed to them," Schulz said.

When educating service members on the importance of hearing protection, the key is to relate to them personally, said Air Force Lt. Col. April Taylor, deputy division chief at HCE.

"A lot of times there's a lack of understanding the 'why' of why it's important for them to protect their hearing. There's not a connection between being told to wear hearing protection and why they're being told to do it," Taylor said. "We try to do that as much as we can with their particular job or mission, and what the exact exposures are that they're facing and what can happen if they don't wear hearing protection."

She said it's all about understanding the long-term consequences and getting service members to realize that if they don't do something now, they may not be able to do their job later. Hearing damage can also keep them from doing other kinds of jobs or pursuing other opportunities in the future.

Taylor reminded service members not only to pay attention to their hearing at work, but also in situations outside of work like riding a motorcycle, going to the shooting range or using power tools. She's often surprised to find out that people don't make the connection between the importance of using hearing protection on and off duty.

Personal motivation to protect hearing could also come from concerns about conditions like tinnitus, which causes constant ringing or other noises in your ears, she said.

Currently, hearing tests are not part of annual health assessments for all active-duty service members, so it is up to the individual to identify problems or concerns that may arise, said Schulz.

"The hearing test doesn't prevent noise-induced hearing loss. It's the education and motivation that goes along with that that's going to prevent it," she said.

Taylor agreed.

"Those tests let us know if we're being effective with our programs," she said. "Are they wearing hearing protection? Those periodic tests only let us know the status and help us monitor whether a problem may be getting better or worse."

When it comes to picking the best form of protection, it depends on the job or activity.

"In many jobs, especially in the military, you need to have some level of situational awareness, so it's critical to get the right amount and kind of protection. Overprotection or improper wear can be dangerous as well," said Schulz.

More information about hearing protection devices can be found here.

"Don't wait," Schulz said. "If you're having any symptoms that you think may be related to hearing loss or reduction like ringing or balance issues, go see an audiologist. That will help in your overall mental and physical health in the future," she said.

It's important to care for your hearing health just as much as any other element of your health.

"Hearing connects us to each other and to the world," she said.

October is National Audiology Awareness Month.

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