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VA researchers study blast-related hearing issues in veterans

Becky Campbell • Updated Jun 28, 2018 at 5:30 PM

Audiologists and researchers from across the country are in Johnson City this week to learn more about hearing problems for U.S. service members.

The 25th annual Appalachian Spring Conference is being held at East Tennessee State University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Mountain Home. The conference started Thursday and continues today.

“For a quarter century, the Appalachian Spring Conference has been a valuable resource for health care providers and researchers in the areas of audiology, speech-language pathology, physical therapy, hearing science and neuroscience,” said Dr. Faith W. Akin, director of the Auditory Vestibular Research Enhancement Award Program. “We are again excited to be welcoming several outstanding scientists and practitioners to Johnson City to share their knowledge.”

This year’s focus for the conference is war-related injuries to the hearing and balance systems in the body. 

“Problems with hearing is one of the number one complaints that U.S. service members have,” said Col. Sidney Hinds. “We get annual testing while we’re in uniform to check on that as well as get education on how to preserve your hearing. We have to balance out the training we have to do to prepare ourselves to go to war.”

Blast-related injuries include sound and over-pressure wave from the blast of a weapon or any other war-related device, he said. Hinds said his research focuses on neurologic issues associated with blasts. The ear and hearing organs are not the only body systems affected by blast injuries, he said. Any air-containing organs in the body can suffer blast injury.

Akin said her research has focused on blast-related hearing injuries and how to treat them.

“It’s important to veterans because hearing loss and tinnitus are the number one and number two service-related disabilities,” Akin said. “The fact that we have a research group here investigating the impact of war-related injuries on the auditory and vestibular system is a big deal for veterans.”

Akin said the “signature” condition of recent wars is mild traumatic brain injury and one of the symptoms following a concussion is dizziness and imbalance.

“Typically dizziness and imbalance, if it’s related to an inner ear problem, it goes away quickly. But for some reason, those that occur following a concussion can continue for a long time. That has a significant impact on people’s lives.

What we’ve learned from our research is the part of the inner ear balance system that we normally test in the clinic is not impacted as often by a head injury or blast and it’s another part of the inner ear balance system .... that’s where the damage is,” she said. 

“It’s a big deal that grew out of the work here. One of the things it’s led to is that we need to be doing this new clinical test in patients that have dizziness or balance problems following a head injury or blast exposure,” Akin said.

Even though the research came from studies with veterans and war-related injuries, Akin said the results will impact treatment for anyone who has blast-related hearing issues.

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