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Dealing with a hearing disorder
Service personnel are often exposed to loud, hazardous and noisy environments, says Ahmed Al-Nahhas, head of the military team at London-based law firm Bolt Burdon Kemp. Whether on the firing range, dealing with explosives, piloting aircraft, operating heavy machinery or playing in a brass band, there will be many situations where noise exposure can become harmful. If you’ve been affected, what can you do?
New figures suggest an increasing number of hearing loss claims made by Service personnel and veterans against the MoD. The Daily Mirror recently reported that these figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, show that:
- £70 million has already been paid out to 10,399 claimants over the past eight years
- There are up to 2,000 new claims for hearing loss
- Total compensation is thought likely to exceed £100 million over the next few years.
But what does this mean to you and what should you do if you are experiencing symptoms of hearing loss?
Am I suffering with hearing loss?
The NHS provides some online guidance for those who think they are suffering with hearing loss. This includes the following signs:
- difficulty hearing other people clearly, and misunderstanding what they say – especially in noisy places
- asking people to repeat themselves
- listening to music or watching television loudly
- having to concentrate hard to hear what other people are saying, which can be tiring or stressful.
If you suffer with any of these symptoms, the first thing you should do is get medical advice, either from your Medical Officer or your civilian GP if you are no longer serving. You may be referred to a specialist for tests. Importantly, you should also take steps to protect yourself by avoiding further exposure to harmful noises.
Hearing loss and associated conditions
There are a number of conditions that may result from exposure to excessive noise. Some are described below.
Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL)
This is sometimes referred to as ‘industrial deafness’ and is caused by harmful exposure to noise. When this happens, the delicate structures in the ear can become stretched beyond their natural limits and/or biochemical changes can occur that impair the function of the ear. This can lead to temporary or permanent hearing loss. It is quite common, for example in the Army, for hearing loss to occur in the right ear. This is because most Service personnel are right-handed and will hold their firearm closest to their right ear.
Sufferers can experience sound when there is no sound, which is normally described as a humming, ringing or buzzing. This sound can come and go, and can be very distracting. In serious cases, it can become permanent, and can affect your sleep and mental health. It can occur without associated hearing loss. People tend to experience tinnitus in different ways. Sometimes they experience it in one ear, or both, or have the sensation that the sound is inside their head. The condition has been closely linked to stress, and can be made worse by low mood and poor mental health.
Following hearing damage, you may experience sensitivity to noise in a number of different ways. For example, you may find yourself feeling anxious or angry around noise, or you might have experienced difficulties adjusting between loud and quiet noises.
There are a variety of available treatments that your doctor can explore with you:
- hearing aids – available on the NHS or privately
- hearing implants – these hearing aids are surgically implanted either deep inside the ear or attached to the skull
- sound therapy – particularly for tinnitus, this treatment aims to retrain the brain by tuning out the offending noise, often by introducing ambient noise; sometimes the use of a ‘sound pillow’ at night will aid sleep
- cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or counselling – to help reduce anxiety and come to terms with the condition.
Prompt medical assessment and treatment may improve your condition and your chances of recovery. In the worst cases, you may at least find ways to minimise and adjust to your symptoms.
If you can establish that you have suffered hearing loss or damage as a result of your service, then you should be entitled to an award under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme. Applications should be made within seven years.
In addition to a claim under the AFCS, where you can prove that your hearing loss could have been avoided, you may be able to bring a civil claim. Time limits are normally three years from the date of injury, but can be extended in special circumstances.
These claims can be complex and it is best to take advice from a solicitor at an early stage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ahmed Al-Nahhas is partner, solicitor-advocate and head of the Military Group at Bolt Burdon Kemp Solicitors. He is also the author of A Practical Guide to Military Claims, which is available through Law Brief Publishing and Amazon Prime.
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