Certain Levels of Painkiller Use May Lead to Hearing Loss

It’s been a long day and you reach for the Tylenol or Motrin. Using these painkillers has become a very normalized part of our everyday life in the United States to help with chronic issues such as arthritis, muscle pain and inflammation. While these over the counter medications are convenient, fast and effective, over use of them can cause long term symptoms over time. One of these side effects which is being explored is over the counter painkillers’ impact on our hearing.

Hearing Loss and Painkiller Use

It may seem surprising at first, but understanding how we hear, can make it more simply understood. While our ears collect sound, the process of hearing must be concluded in our brain. Audio waves of sound are converted into electrical impulses which are received by our brain, via tiny hair-like cells called stereocilia. The stereocilia are very fragile and rely on a steady supply of oxygenated blood in order to stay healthy over years. When they become damaged or destroyed it can leave us with permanent hearing loss. Recent research suggests that certain common over the counter painkillers such as acetaminophen (brand name Tylenol) or ibuprofen (brand name Motrin) may impact the integrity of our blood cells over time affecting the delivery of blood to our inner ear. 

The Regular Use of Long-term Analgesics

2017 article titled “Duration of Analgesic Use and Risk of Hearing Loss in Women” in the American Journal of Epidemiology was published by Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This article highlighted a study of 55,850 women who reported their use of painkillers in combination with reporting degrees of hearing ability. The study participants were interviewed about their use of over the counter painkillers and their degree of hearing loss between 1990 to 2012.

The study explored the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) including ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin to determine the long-term effects of hearing from regular use. Regular use within the study was identified as an average of two doses or more, weekly. 

The Results of the Study

The results showed that participants who habitually used the popular NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen reported a higher rate of hearing loss than people who did not use them regularly. However, for aspirin users, the results showed it to have a rather low ototoxicity level. Ototoxic medications, and substances are defined as chemicals which can damage hearing over time. 

While the research highlighted higher instances of hearing loss over the study period for users of acetaminophen and ibuprofen, they did not have conclusive data to fully document why these medications impact hearing at such a high rate. Theories include the nature in which blood cells are affected by these medications.  It’s believed that these NSAIDs restrict the flow of oxygen to the inner ear, which increases the risk to the stereocilia which rely on a constant supply of healthy oxygenated blood.

Another popular theory is that these medications inhibit the glucose which coats the stereocilia, making them less pliable and more prone to risk of breakage. 

Studies on the hearing of rodents and NSAIDs ( rodents’ have similar hearing structures to humans) show that these over-the- counter medications may possibly enact oxidative stress mechanisms, oxidizing the cells at a higher rate than they can be repaired by the body’s natural response. 

The Implications for Your Lifestyle

If you have chronic pain, it quickly becomes all too easy to reach for the bottle of painkillers, without understanding the long-term effects. We urge you to talk to your doctor about alternative methods of treatment. Many times, chronic pain treated at home with these medications is a clue to a more severe looming health issue. It may be nothing- sometimes it can be a matter of simply drinking more water to relieve headaches and body pain frequently self-treated with these ototoxic over the counter medications. However, you can never be too thorough when it comes to your health.

If you have been struggling with hearing issues, we are here to help. We can test your hearing, detect any possible hearing loss and find the best solution to help you hear clearly for years to come. The first step is to contact us today to set up a hearing exam.