Sunday, January 08, 2012

Night-vision goggles causing neck problems in military pilots

They are the embodiment of a modern, high-tech military and a fixture in Hollywood action movies, but night-vision goggles can literally be a pain in the neck, new Canadian research seems to confirm. A recent study found that most of the Canadian Forces helicopter pilots surveyed suffer from sore necks, and previous research lays much of the blame on the bulky, image-intensifying goggles worn on after-dark missions.

The effects can be debilitating for some, said Patrick Neary, a kinesiology professor at the University of Regina who has led much of the Canadian research. The hazard has been identified in other countries, too, with some pilots actually grounded because of the cervical strain.

“Talking to some individuals, I know they have problems sleeping because of this,” he said in interview Thursday.

Night-vision goggles, which amplify available light thousands of times and display images in green on built-in screens, have become standard issue throughout the armed forces, used by infantry soldiers for low-light operations as well as air force personnel. They contribute to a total weight with the helicopter pilots’ helmet of about 3.6 kilograms, said Prof. Neary.

The problems seem to come when crew move their heads to view the in-flight computer, which sits below shoulder level.

Dean Black, a retired lieutenant colonel in the air force and former CH-146 Griffon helicopter pilot, said Thursday the goggles came into use in the 1990s and are now considered essential.

“They are not only indispensable to air crew, but to people on the ground who depend on the ability of the helicopters to come and help them,” he said. “It means the helicopters can operate 24/7 and in deteriorating conditions…. It turns night into day, albeit all in a green colour, but it really brightens things up.”

A Canadian pilot with a night vision goggle system prepares for a night time training mission in 2007.

Mr. Black, now executive director of the Air Force Association of Canada, said wearing the goggles never caused him much trouble, though he found himself “getting more tired, more quickly than normal.” Some others did suffer considerable pain, however, including one female Griffon officer whom he recalls being grounded because of it.

The latest study by Prof. Neary, Prof. Wayne Albert of the University of New Brunswick and others surveyed a small sample of pilots and flight engineers on the Griffon. Just published in the journal Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine, it found that more than half the 40 personnel reported flight-related neck pain, with no difference between the pilots and engineers, who sit further back in the aircraft and perform non-flying tasks. All wear night-vision goggles.

An earlier internal study by the Canadian Forces found that almost all of the pilots who had flown at least 150 hours with night-vision goggles reported neck pain, and that 16 of those surveyed had been grounded because of the pain.

Counterweights on the back of the helmet to offset the effect of the goggles in front help somewhat but do not eliminate the problem, he said. Exercises that help develop muscle co-ordination and strength in the neck, however, appear to make a significant difference, said the kinesiologist.

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