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What to Know About Vibration Exposure in Veterans

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on June 15, 2022

Vibration exposure is a potential hazard that you may have encountered during your military service. There are two main types of vibrations — hand-arm and whole-body. Prolonged vibration exposure in veterans can cause a number of serious medical conditions. 

People who have served in the Navy or had military jobs that exposed them to vibrations are particularly at risk for developing problems. You can file a claim for disability compensation with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) if you believe that you currently have health issues related to vibration exposure. 

What Is Vibration Exposure?

Vibration exposure is a work-related hazard that can lead to a number of problems. It can affect a single limb or your entire body.

The vibrations are called hand-arm vibrations when they originate from a hand-held device like a chainsaw. These can lead to a condition called Hand and Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS). This condition has been well documented since the early 20th century.

You’re exposed to whole-body vibrations (WBVs), on the other hand, when you operate large equipment like trucks, ships, and agricultural tools. These vibrations can cause widespread problems throughout your body and are an area of active research.  

Who Can Encounter Vibration Exposure?

Anyone who uses handheld power tools on a regular basis or operates large machinery is at risk of developing problems from vibration exposure. 

In fact, one study found that 64% of shipyard workers had signs of HAVS. 

In the military, the navy has created informational packets explaining the particular dangers of HAVS. 

Effects of Vibration on the Human Body

High levels of vibration can modify your body in a number of ways. In general, consistent vibrations can narrow your blood vessels, which restricts blood flow to these regions. This cuts off the oxygen supply to these areas and can lead to painful, uncomfortable symptoms. 

There’s even some evidence that high levels of whole-body vibrations can change the way that some of your genes are expressed. This can lead to a variety of problems throughout your body that we’re just beginning to understand. 

Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome Symptoms

The symptoms of hand-arm vibration syndrome start slowly and progress through different stages of severity. The symptoms can start in one or both of your hands depending on the device that’s causing your condition. 

Early signs are brief periods of tingling and numbness in your fingertips. Symptoms progress down to your palms as your condition gets worse. Additional symptoms include: 

  • Loss of feeling
  • Loss of dexterity
  • Periods of pain
  • Waking at night from pain in your fingers and hands
  • Multiple fingers that turn white (blanch)

Bouts of pain tend to last for five to 15 minutes when they first begin. After your condition progresses, they can last for up to two hours. Small spots of necrosis — dead tissue — could eventually form on your fingertips. 

Symptoms will be worse in the cold. In fact, you may only initially notice your symptoms when cold. 

Symptoms can appear after you’ve used certain tools for less than a year. In general, your odds of developing HAVS increase the longer that you use equipment. Symptoms will continue to get worse as long as you continue to use causal tools.  

Whole Body Vibration Symptoms

Whole-body vibration is typically associated with musculoskeletal problems, but the symptoms can be even more widespread. 

WBV symptoms can include: 

Early studies have also linked whole-body vibration to the development of certain cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and cancers — including prostate cancer. More research is needed to understand the connections between whole-body vibrations and these medical conditions. 

Vibration Exposure Treatment and Prevention

There’s no cure for hand-arm vibration syndrome or many of the problems caused by whole-body vibrations. Instead, treatment is focused on relieving your symptoms. 

You should avoid the cold and smoking cigarettes — both of these things can make your symptoms worse. 

You should talk to your doctor about the best medications to try for pain relief. You’ll also need to seek specific treatments if your whole-body vibrations have led to conditions like heart problems or cancer. Your doctor will need to tailor your treatment to your particular symptoms. 

The best thing to do once you start to notice symptoms is to prevent the condition from getting worse. These steps can even prevent HAVS and WBV symptoms from developing if you take the right precautions from the start of your equipment use. Preventative measures include: 

  • Using tools that are specifically made to decrease vibrations — called anti-vibration, or A/V, models
  • Wearing A/V gloves
  • Choosing the best seat design for large riding equipment
  • Holding your tools lightly and letting them do most of the work
  • Keeping your equipment well-maintained

What Benefits Are Available for Military Exposures?

The U.S. Veterans Association (VA) offers a variety of services to help manage vibration exposure in veterans and their families. These services can include: 

  • Health care
  • Disability compensation
  • Health registry evaluations 
  • Survivor and dependent benefits 

Health registry evaluations are free assessments that look for long-term problems caused by environmental hazards — like vibration exposure. They’re available even if you don’t have VA health care.

Survivor benefits apply if a military veteran dies from health complications related to their vibration exposure. These can include a variety of benefits like health care and home loan assistance.  

You can file a claim with the VA for disability compensation if you believe that your health concerns are related to vibration exposure during your service. This can be done online, or you can consult your local VA office. They’ll decide your eligibility on a case-by-case basis. 

Who Could Qualify for Military Benefits?

You may be eligible for military benefits if you served in the active military, navy, or air services. 

There’s a minimum duty requirement if you enlisted after September 7, 1980. In this case, you need to have served for at least 24 consecutive months or completed a full period of active duty to qualify. 

This minimum service requirement doesn’t apply, though, if you were discharged because of a disability that was caused by — or made worse by — your service. It also doesn’t apply in cases of discharge for hardship. However, you likely won’t qualify if you received a dishonorable discharge. 

Whether or not you currently have health care won’t affect the benefits that you can get from the VA. You should contact your local VA office to discuss your eligibility for services like VA health care and disability compensation. 

Show Sources

SOURCES: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Vibration Syndrome.” 

Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B: “Health effects associated with occupational exposure to hand-arm or whole body vibration.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Benefits Overview for Military Exposures,” “Eligibility for VA health care,” “Vibration.” 

U.S. Navy Safety Center: “Fact Sheet: Occupational Exposure to Hand-Arm Vibration (HAV).” 

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