TBI and Hearing Loss: Chronic Conditions Many Veterans Struggle With

Just a little after midnight on Jan. 8, 2020, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched a ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces stationed in Iraq. Two locations were targeted: Ayn al-Asad Air Base in al Anbar Governorate and an area of Erbil, a city located in the Kurdistan region.

Thanks to early warning defense systems, no American lives were lost in the attacks. However, as a result of the concussive effects from the blast waves of the missile detonations, a total of 110 service personnel were diagnosed and treated for Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) – 29 of whom later were awarded the Purple Heart. When the missile attacks made international news, the story also served to remind us of the “invisible injuries” often sustained by service members. Like others who’ve suffered blast injuries, many of those wounded in the attacks in Iraq are still managing the effects of their TBI and will likely continue to do so for some time.

Since March is TBI Awareness Month, it’s a good time to examine this condition, its relationships with hearing loss and how it impacts veterans.

What is a TBI?

A TBI is usually the result of a violent blow or jolt to the head and can result in symptoms ranging from headache and dizziness to sensory issues (ears ringing, loss of hearing, altered sense of taste or smell and light sensitivity), to extreme cognitive impairment, seizures, coma and even death, according to the Mayo Clinic.

How Common is a TBI?

One in every 60 Americans is living with a permanent TBI disability. That’s more than 5.3 million people dealing with a chronic condition that is often misdiagnosed and can often go years without being diagnosed – not unlike hearing loss. Like hearing loss, the degrees of severity range widely from fully recoverable injuries to total disability.

Veterans and TBI

Also, like hearing loss, veterans are uniquely at-risk for a TBI, especially during combat deployments, as illustrated in the 2020 missile attacks in Iraq. The most recent statistics from the Department of Defense report more than 430,000 TBIs among service members across all branches of the military from 2000 through the 3rd quarter of 2020. While the majority of these are less severe cases, more than 55,000 are considered moderate or worse – and even the mild cases can still result in long-term effects. According to research from the American Tinnitus Association, long-term effects of a TBI are likely more prevalent in service members and veterans than in the general population given factors such as multiple TBI events, including military-related blasts.

TBI: Often misdiagnosed

“Hearing loss often happens in conjunction with other invisible injuries, such as traumatic brain injury, or TBI,” says the Hearing Center of Excellence. “Hearing and balance issues are often overlooked in polytrauma patients because other visible wounds often take medical priority. Still, hearing loss may mask or confuse the correct diagnosis of other injuries. For example, a TBI patient could be misdiagnosed as unresponsive when hearing loss is present. Given the interconnectedness between hearing loss and other invisible injuries, it’s important to understand each condition.”

Despite TBI injuries not appearing as a stand-alone disability in the list of the most common service-connected disabilities, it is represented as a comorbidity to several others – including hearing loss, tinnitus, PTSD and migraines.

As March is Traumatic Brain Injury Awareness Month, now is the perfect time for veterans – or for people close to veterans – to seek out resources and assistance for any lingering effects of a TBI, service-connected or not. Operation We Are Here has collected a helpful list of resources for veterans in need. For veterans struggling with hearing loss, Heroes With Hearing Loss offers a list of resources and solutions available.

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