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Vibroacoustic Disease: More Than a Hearing Problem

Billings, Bart P. PhD, COL (Ret)

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doi: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000579560.07056.13
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In the late 1990s, I was working with some professional audio sound technicians, and had the opportunity to experience the sound system for a major concert prior to the show. When they turned on the sound system, it took me only seconds to yell out, “Turn it off, it hurts!” The sound didn't only hurt my ears but my whole body. That's when I first realized that high-intensity/low-frequency (HI/LF) sound vibration could be dangerous to one's overall health.

At the time, I was in the U.S. Army Reserve and the Medical Service Corps, where I served as a clinical psychologist, a general hospital commanding officer, and a special projects officer, among others. Earlier in my military career, I was also a combat engineer, where I experienced loud explosions (blast waves) and weapons that emitted HI/LF vibrations. These experiences motivated me to look into the effects of HI/LF sound on the human body, particularly vibroacoustic disease (VAD). Fortunately for me, I discovered that medical specialists in Europe had already done research in this area. As early as 1956, Professor Eugenia Andreeva-Galanina developed a classification of hand-arm vibration-induced pathology, followed by more medical research (Aviat Space Environ Med. 1999 Mar;70[3 Pt 2]:A32-9). The article that made the strongest impact on me was “The Vibroacoustic Disease—An Emerging Pathology” by N.A.A. Branco Castelo and Lopez E. Rodriguez (Aviat Space Environ Med. 1999; 70[3, Suppl]:A1-6).

In 2001, an occupational physician in the U.S. Navy who attended the Civilian Combat Stress Conference, which I founded and directed, asked me if I had an idea why even experienced sailors would walk off the deck or in front of jet engine intakes while working on aircraft carriers. Noting my previous research, I told him that when a person feels sound waves from HI/LF vibrations, every cell in his or her body is being damaged. When this happens, the body automatically dumps adrenaline and endorphins into the blood stream in an effort to survive (AKA fight-or-flight response to injury). This, in turn, causes disorientation, confusion, and an overall lack of awareness, which can result in accidents. This is similar to the classic tale of an Olympic marathon runner who, after running over 26 miles with a massive amount of endorphins in his system, gets confused and runs the wrong way at the finish line.

As a military veteran, I am concerned that when soldiers return from combat, VAD is rarely diagnosed and most often overlooked as PTSD. For example, I had a patient who had many classic symptoms of VAD but was diagnosed with PTSD. He was inappropriately given brain-altering drugs with black box warnings for many years before he finally realized he needed to stop the medications.

Patients with hearing loss from exposure to HI/LF sounds should also be evaluated for VAD. I saw a patient with 20 body system problems, which no one realized were from VAD until I explained what occurred when he was handling a machine eight hours a day for eight years. His symptoms were in line with those described by Castelo and Rodriguez (Aviat Space Environ Med. 1999; 70[3, Suppl]:A1-6).

High-intensity, low-frequency sounds not only produce auditory and vestibular symptoms, but may also impact the overall status and functions of neurological, muscular, or even cardiovascular systems. The impact of high-intensity, low-frequency sounds is underappreciated. The diagnosis and treatment of their associated symptoms need to be improved.

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1. Castelo Branco NA. The clinical stages of vibroacoustic disease. Aviat Space Environ Med. 1999 Mar;70(3 Pt 2):A32-9.
    2. Castelo Branco NAA, Rodriguez Lopez E. The vibroacoustic disease-An emerging pathology. Aviat Space Environ Med 1999; 70(3, Suppl):A1-6.
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