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What Is Tinnitus? Faulty 3M Earplugs & Ringing in the Ears

May 3, 2019

Most people at one time or another have experienced what it’s like to hear ringing, buzzing, or some other type of noise in their ears without any external source of sound. If you’ve attended a concert or sporting event, or have had to use or be near loud machinery, you’ve likely felt what it’s like. Though the sensation may be short-lived for most people, it doesn’t go away for some. That’s what thousands of military veterans are claiming in lawsuits filed against 3M, the manufacturer of faulty combat earplugs.

As our legal team at Bailey Cowan Heckaman has reported on our blog, veterans across the country have been filing an onslaught of civil personal injury lawsuits against Minnesota-based 3M Company. The manufacturer settled a federal False Claims Act case last year over allegations that it supplied the U.S. military with standard-issue earplugs it knew had defects which rendered them ineffective.

Though that matter is resolved, 3M must now face up to the claims of numerous veterans and their loved ones who say they’ve suffered tinnitus, hearing loss, and other damages as a result of using 3M CAEv2 earplugs during their time in the military.

Understanding Tinnitus & Its Connection to 3M Military Earplugs

Tinnitus is a medical condition characterized by the constant perception of sound in the head when there is no external source. Affecting as many as 60 million Americans, tinnitus has a number of underlying causes, from those associated with temporary hearing problems after exposure to loud sounds to aging, medications which damage nerves in the ear (otoxic drugs), impacted earwax, and other health issues.

When tinnitus affects otherwise healthy individuals, including the many young men and women who courageously served our country, it’s often the result of exposure to extremely loud sounds. That could include sounds produced by firearms, heavy artillery, machinery, aircraft, and other harmful sounds service members frequently encounter during tours of combat or training exercises. Tinnitus is so common among military veterans that the VA awarded disability compensation to nearly a million vets through 2012 precisely because of the condition.

Our attorneys understand the far-reaching consequences of tinnitus, which is why we’re actively reviewing potential cases from former service members who want to learn about their rights and how to navigate the legal pathways toward needed compensation. We’re also providing some helpful information and resources to better understand the condition.

1. The Condition

Tinnitus is most often subjective, meaning only the person with the condition can hear the noise in their ears. What that noise sounds like can vary from person to person. Some describe it as ringing, buzzing, or high-pitched whining, while others experience humming, whistling, roaring, buzzing, or even shrieking. The noise may affect one or both ears, can seem as if it’s coming from a distance or inside the head, and may be constant or intermittent.

Noise-induced hearing loss is the most common cause of tinnitus. That’s because harmful noises irreparably harm tiny hair cells in the ear which are crucial to health hearing. Medical experts have found that when these or other parts of the ear are damaged, such as by loud sounds, it can inhibit how the brain receives signals of sound which travel through the auditory pathway: the ear canal, middle and inner ear, cochlea, and the brain’s auditory cortex.

  • How we hear sound – In a healthy person, sound waves travel from outside of the brain, through the ear canal, and into the middle and inner ear, where they’re turned into electrical signals by tiny hair cells in the cochlea. Those signals are then carried to the brain and interpreted as specific sounds we’re able to recognize.
  • What happens with tinnitus – When there’s damage to the ear along any part of the auditory pathway, such as damaged cochlear hair cells (sensorineural hearing loss), signals don’t make it to the brain. In an effort to detect any signals it can, the brain essentially “turns up the gain” in much the same way a radio / volume is adjusted when trying to find a station. That results in abnormal neuron activity, and the perception of noise characteristic of tinnitus.

Most people with tinnitus also experience hearing loss. In fact, it’s common for the noise a person with tinnitus hears to be either high pitched, if their hearing loss is in the high-frequency range, or low pitched, if its lower frequencies they’re not able to hear. It’s similar to sensations of phantom limb pain amputees experience, which generally arise from abnormal nerve activity and the brain’s attempt to compensate for missing input.

2. The Impact of Tinnitus

How tinnitus affects a person’s life depends on the severity of the condition, and its largely unpredictable course. For some, tinnitus symptoms remain consistent. For others, they progressively worsen or are so severe that daily life becomes a struggle. People with tinnitus report a number of adverse effects on physical and mental health, including:

  • Anxiety, distress, and depression
  • Mood swings, irritability, and frustration
  • Sleeping problems and fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating and communicating
  • Difficulties working and earning meaningful wages
  • Social isolation / withdrawal
  • Lost quality of life and inability to enjoy certain hobbies

3. Treatment & Management

Because there is no known cure for tinnitus, it becomes important for sufferers to find ways to treat and manage their tinnitus. How that’s done is different from case to case, and can be difficult when tinnitus and underlying hearing loss or medical issues are severe. Generally, people find relief with the following forms of treatment and management approaches:

  • Avoidance of certain medications that can aggravate symptoms (i.e. aspirin, antibiotics, seizure and cancer medications, certain types of antidepressants);
  • Treating underlying medical conditions or symptom-worsening factors (i.e. tumors or blood vessel abnormalities);
  • Massage therapy, chiropractic care, stretching and other methods for addressing musculoskeletal injuries or tension in the neck or jaw that can worsen tinnitus symptoms;
  • Proper diet, adequate sleep, exercise, and stress-management;
  • Controlling volume from gadgets that can trigger tinnitus, using hearing protection to block loud noises, and limiting exposure to loud sounds at concerts or events to prevent further hearing loss;
  • Using sleep headphones, white noise machines and other background noise to promote relaxation when focusing or attempting to sleep;
  • Mindfulness exercises, meditation, and relaxation strategies to “tune out” the ringing / noise;
  • Medications or psychotherapy to address anxiety, insomnia, pain, and depression;

Finding the best treatment approach is something you should do with a qualified physician. Your doctor and specialists like audiologists can evaluate your overall health, hearing, and the severity and nature of tinnitus as a means to identify any major health concerns, and ways to effectively manage and live with the condition. You can also find helpful information from the American Tinnitus Association (ATA), the National Institute of Deafness & Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), and the American Academy of Audiology (Audiology.org).

Bailey Cowan Heckaman PLLC is a national trial practice comprised of highly experienced personal injury and product liability lawyers. To learn more about 3M earplug lawsuits, your rights, and how the firm may be able to help you file a potential claim for compensation, contact us today.

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