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Veterans Law

VA Disability for Ear Conditions

March 21, 2020

While serving on active duty, service members are often exposed to loud, harmful noises.  As a result, many veterans suffer from a number of different ear conditions later on in life.  Such veterans may be eligible for VA disability benefits if they can prove to VA that their ear conditions are caused by their time in service.

Establishing Service Connection for Ear Conditions

In order to receive VA disability benefits for ear conditions, you must first prove to VA that your ear condition is the result of your active duty military service.  For direct service connection, you must establish the following three elements: (1) a current, diagnosed ear condition; (2) an in-service event that may have caused or contributed to your ear condition; and (3) a medical opinion definitively linking the in-service event to your ear condition.

Types of Ear Conditions

Meniere’s Disease

Meniere’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to vertigo (i.e., dizzy spells) and hearing loss.  In most cases, Meniere’s disease only affects one ear.  Symptoms of the condition include the following:

  • Recurring episodes of vertigo – spinning sensation that starts and stops spontaneously; occurs without warning and usually lasts 20 minutes to several hours
  • Hearing loss – may come and go, particularly early on
  • Nausea
  • Tinnitus – perception of a ringing, buzzing, roaring, whistling, or hissing sound in your ear
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear – feelings of pressure in the affected ear (i.e., aural fullness)

There is no cure for Meniere’s disease, but a number of treatments can help reduce the severity and frequency of vertigo episodes.

Vertigo

Vertigo is a sensation of feeling off balance.  It is often caused by an inner ear problem.  For example, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) occurs when tiny calcium particles clump up in canals of the inner ear.

Perforated Eardrum

A perforated, or ruptured, eardrum is a hole or tear in the thin tissue that separates your ear canal from your middle ear (i.e., eardrum).  A perforated eardrum can result in hearing loss and make your middle ear vulnerable to infections.  While this issue usually heals within a few weeks without treatment.  However, sometimes it requires a patch or surgical repair to heal.  Symptoms may include the following:

  • Ear pain that may subside quickly
  • Mucus-like, pus-filled or bloody drainage from your ear
  • Hearing loss
  • Tinnitus
  • Vertigo
  • Nausea or vomiting that can result from vertigo

Perforated eardrums can be caused by middle ear infections, loud sounds or blasts (i.e., acoustic trauma), severe head trauma, and more.

Perilymphatic Fistula

Perilymphatic fistula is a tear or defect between your middle ear and fluid-filled inner ear that can make you feel dizzy and may cause some hearing loss.  Individuals can be born with this condition or it can be caused by barotrauma, a head injury, or heavy lifting.

Acoustic Neuroma

An acoustic neuroma is a tumor in your inner ear that is not cancerous and grows slowly but can squeeze the nerves that control your hearing and balance.  This ear condition can lead to hearing loss, ringing in your ear, and dizziness.  In some cases, a neuroma can press against your facial nerve and cause that side of your face to feel numb.

How VA Rates Ear Conditions

VA rates ear conditions according to 38 CFR § 4.87, Schedule of Ratings – Ear.  The various ear conditions listed above are rated differently depending on the rating criteria.  For example, Meniere’s disease is rated as follows:

  • 100% – hearing impairment with attacks of vertigo and cerebellar gait occurring more than once weekly, with or without tinnitus
  • 60% – hearing impairment with attacks of vertigo and cerebellar gait occurring from one to four times a month, with or without tinnitus
  • 30% – hearing impairment with vertigo less than once a month, with or without tinnitus

VA almost always rates other ear conditions at 0 or 10 percent.  If veterans believe their ear condition warrants a higher disability rating, they have the right to appeal.

The Duty MOS Noise Exposure Listing

In September 2010, VA published “The Duty MOS Noise Exposure Listing” – a list for VA rating officials to use to determine whether a veteran’s hearing loss, tinnitus, or ear conditions could be considered service-connected even if it developed more than a year after discharge.  Essentially, the list goes through every military occupational specialty (MOS) and rates it according to the likelihood of that MOS being exposed to noise that could result in long-term hearing impairments.  If the rating is moderate or high, then the rating officials are supposed to grant service connection.

Importantly, this list was merely a suggestion for rating officials to follow when making determinations and VA no longer has it officially published.  However, it is still the standard used by rating officials when deciding on hearing loss and ear condition claims based on MOS noise exposure.