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Hearing Loss and Painkillers

Woman talking to man with hearing loss

A study conducted by Dr Sharon Curhan and her colleagues at Harvard University has recently been published in the American Journal of Medicine that associates hearing loss with taking painkillers.

Whilst it has long been accepted that high doses of painkillers such as aspirin can cause hearing loss and tinnitus, this is the first time long-term low-dose use of painkillers has been implicated.

The drugs studied were aspirin, paracetamol (acetaminophen) and ibuprofen which are three of the most commonly used painkiller with 60 percent of people taking one of these pharmaceuticals at least once a week.


The painkiller and hearing loss study

The hearing loss study was a prospective one that followed 51,000 male health professionals aged 40-75 over the years from 1986. Every other year the participants completed questionnaires about their diet, health and medication use.

At the start of the study none of the participants had any hearing loss. However, nearly 3,500 were currently found to have some degree of hearing loss.

After adjusting for other factors such as age, weight and health conditions known to contribute to hearing loss, the risks of developing later hearing loss were as follows:

  • 12% increased risk of hearing loss when taking two or more aspirin a week
  • 21% increased risk of hearing loss if taking two or more ibuprofen or paracetamol per week
  • 28% increased risk of hearing loss if regularly taking aspirin long-term
  • 33% greater risk for regular ibuprofen and paracetamol users


However, there are some provisos:

  • This study could only prove association, not causation.
  • It did not examine why the participants were taking painkillers and it may have been their underlying health condition rather than the pharmaceuticals that accounted for their hearing loss.
  • The hearing loss was assessed by self-reporting and so was subjective rather than using any objective measure.
  • The study did not examine other possibilities that might explain their hearing loss such as their occupational and recreational exposure to noise.
  • The group studied were mostly white, male health professionals and the results may not apply to other populations.


The incidence of hearing loss

Our hearing was never designed for our 24/7 world full of noise and stimulation and alarmingly, approximately one in ten people under the age of 20 exhibit some permanent hearing loss as a result of excessive exposure to noise. And approximately one-third of people in their forties have some degree of hearing loss. By the age of 48 years of age, you have a one-in five chance of developing some degree of hearing loss over the next five years.


How hearing loss occurs


Physical damage to the ears

Hearing loss can be a result of a pre-existing abnormality or physical damage to the hearing apparatus. Head injuries, for example, may result in temporary or permanent hearing loss or tinnitus.


Exposure to noise

Exposure to recreational or occupational noise can also cause permanent hearing loss. This can be the result of a one-off loud noise such as an explosion or can be cumulative.


Exposure to toxins

Some chemicals and pharmaceuticals are known to be particularly toxic to the ear (ototoxic). Typically, such hearing loss starts with the high frequency ranges and is permanent although in some cases may be reversible. Such chemicals induce lesions in the cochlea (inner ear) and others reduce blood flow to the inner ear affecting the translation of vibration into nerve signals.

The different ototoxins recognised to cause hearing loss are listed below:

  • Pharmaceutical drugs such as anti-malarial agents, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, chemotherapy drugs, diuretics and narcotic painkillers
  • Solvents such as toluene, styrene, xylene, white spirits, fuels, perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene
  • Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide
  • Toxic metals such as lead, mercury and organotins
  • Pesticides and herbicides such as paraquat and organophosphates


Hearing and painkillers: The take-home message

The moral is to look after your hearing - it cannot be recovered or replaced. Avoid of excessive exposure to noise, take antioxidants and be mindful that your painkiller habit may contribute to permanent hearing loss.


Further resources

You might also be interested in the following: 

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The Marketing of Medicine

Antidepressant Prescribing Up

Deadly Drugs Scourge

Noise Pollution

Hearing and Balance Problems: Iatrogenic Causes

Book Review: What Doctors Don't Tell You

Research: The Adverse Effects of Pharmaceuticals

For a comprehensive approach to detoxifying toxic metals please refer to The Natural Recovery Plan book

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Part 1 and Part 2 of Dr Michael Murray on Pharmaceuticals

Part 1 and Part 2 of What The Drug Companies Won't Tell You 

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The Most Astonishing Health Disaster of the 20th Century 

Ben Zander's Testimony to the FDA


Or for all media use the Search facility at the top of the page


Hearing loss and painkillers: Article summary

This article looks at the findings of a 2009 study into the impact of painkillers on hearing loss that concluded that regularly taking low dose painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen is related to, and may be the cause, of hearing loss in later life. Other factors affecting hearing loss and the incidence of hearing loss are also examined.


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The Natural Recovery Plan Newsletter April 2010 Issue 4. Copyright Alison Adams 2010. All rights reserved
Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach

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