About one in ten American adults suffer from tinnitus and the condition affects veterans more than any other group. Repeated exposure to noise from gunfire, aircraft, tanks, and other machinery make tinnitus is the number one disability among veterans.
Despite the fact that it’s so prevalent, a disability claim for tinnitus is often minimal and not so easy to make as a disability evaluation unlike an amputation, an impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder, stress, or other disorder. Unless the tinnitus is concurrent with significant hearing loss, the financial compensation will be minimal. That said, the VA is working on other options to help those with tinnitus manage in their day-to-day lives, as well as disability benefits.
What Is Tinnitus?
Most people describe tinnitus as a ringing in the ears which is partially true. Also known as Meniere’s disease, tinnitus is usually defined as the perception of noise in the ear. Commonly, this is ringing but it can also be whistling, buzzing, swooshing, or clicking.
Tinnitus is commonly associated with hearing loss. Because the brain receives less auditory stimuli, tinnitus may be the brain’s way of filling in the gaps for the frequencies that the ears can no longer hear.
In addition to frequent exposure to sounds that can lead to hearing loss, veterans are also susceptible to traumatic brain injuries. The middle ear is easily damaged by concussions and other shocks to the brain and even mild head injuries can result in chronic tinnitus.
What Is the VA Rating for Tinnitus?
The VA uses a rating system for all disability claims to determine how much monthly compensation should be. This system rates your condition on a scale of 0 to 100. Theoretically, the more severe the injury and the more it impacts your ability to work and perform activities of daily living, the more compensation you should receive.
Recurrent tinnitus carries a standard rating of 10% which is about $140 a month. This rating applies whether the tinnitus occurs in one or both ears.
Since a lot of veterans often suffer from both tinnitus and hearing loss, it’s worth mentioning that this 10% is awarded in addition to whatever compensation has been determined for hearing loss.
Proving Tinnitus and Hearing Loss
Since tinnitus and hearing loss are so common, you might think that these disabilities are easy to prove. The truth is the process is not that straightforward.
First, you’ll need a medical diagnosis. It’s beneficial to see an audiologist for an official diagnosis. Since they’re specialists, their findings will carry a little more weight than a general practitioner or PCP. The VA is very particular about a medical diagnosis so it’s important to get the best evidence possible.
You also have to be able to make a service connection to prove that the tinnitus and/or hearing loss was caused by things that happened during your time in the military. While it can be time-consuming, causation can be pretty well established just by looking at your service record. Identify times when you may have been exposed to heavy machinery, gunfire, or explosions.
Finally, you need your doctor to connect two. Essentially, you need a solid medical opinion that the exposure you experienced in the military resulted in your tinnitus or hearing loss.
Again, tinnitus carries a standard rating of 10% and there’s nothing you can do to increase that, regardless of severity. The only way to get more compensation is to have a concurrent diagnosis of hearing loss.
The VA uses two different tests to determine how severe your hearing loss is. The first is a pure tone auditory test which directly checks your ability to hear frequencies ranging from low to high. The second test is called the Maryland CNC test which checks your ability to hear spoken word. A licensed audiologist performs these tests on both ears, even if the hearing loss is only present in one.
After the VA gets the results of these tests, they assign a rating. As we mentioned, tinnitus is only 10% but hearing loss can be rated pretty high if it impacts your ability to support yourself and your family. In fact, ratings for hearing loss of 30% or more may also qualify your dependents for coverage if you are unable to work. It’s important to note that the severity of hearing loss is determined by how well your ears work together. If one ear is significantly damaged but the other isn’t, your disability won’t be rated as high.
Can the VA Help in Other Ways?
While the VA rating for tinnitus isn’t particularly high, it doesn’t mean you’re not suffering. Tinnitus can be emotionally and mentally difficult to deal with and there are other ways that the VA can help.
The VA uses a program called Progressive Tinnitus Management (PTM) to help veterans cope with the lasting effects of tinnitus. It involves a well-rounded approach that incorporates education, counseling, psychotherapy, and sound therapy.
There are numerous sound therapies to try. Sound therapies refer to interventions using external noise to change the patient’s reaction to tinnitus. The function using four different mechanisms: masking, distracting, habituation, and neuromodulation.
Masking uses white noise that’s loud enough to cover the sound of tinnitus whereas distraction uses an external sound to divert the patient’s brain from their tinnitus. Often, a simple white noise machine can help with masking and a hearing aid can augment external noise to help distract the brain.
Habituation is the process of training the brain to reclassify tinnitus as background noise that should be ignored. It can take time to accomplish but can have good results.
Auditory neuromodulation refers to the use of specialized sounds to minimize the neural hyperactivity in the brain that’s thought to be an underlying cause of tinnitus. The goal is to make long-lasting changes to the activity patterns in your brain so that the tinnitus decreases in severity. Auditory neuromodulation can take time but delivers pretty good results when it works.
Hope for the Future
While the financial compensation for tinnitus isn’t likely to improve thanks to the VA rating system, there’s a real push to find treatments that work. Since tinnitus is so prevalent, advances in correcting it would help a large portion of veterans who deserve to be heard.