If you’re anything like me, you tend to ignore all the possible side effects printed on the medicine box. Then again, that’s probably the alcoholic in me, ignoring all the important details I should be paying attention to. (Seriously, though: some of the fine print on pharmaceutical ads have more credits than a Star Wars movie poster.) According to a recent Reuters article, however, it may be time to pay attention to the fine print on some pretty common medication. Regular users of Tylenol and Aleve may be putting themselves at risk for hearing loss and, in some cases, more serious conditions like memory loss and dementia. In some ways, the study’s biggest revelation isn’t actually about over-the-counter medicine and hearing loss. It’s about America’s addiction to not feeling pain, no matter the cost.
What the Study Said
The study, funded by the US National Institutes of Health, analyzed data from nearly 56,000 women who reported using non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) like naproxen, ibuprofen and acetaminophen for six years or longer. Better known by their household names Aleve, Motrin and Tylenol (respectively), the drugs were repeatedly red flagged by women who reported hearing problems. It’s a surprising side effect, given how the drugs are freely available almost anywhere you go. “Hearing loss is extremely common in the United States and can have a profound impact on quality of life,” Dr. Gary Curhan, the study’s senior author, told Reuters.
He was also quick to point out that just because drugs like Aleve are sold over the counter, it doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Aside from hearing loss, the drugs pose other threats—like high blood pressure. While they’re fine for a few weeks, Curhan observed that there needs to be “strong justification for long-term use.” The study focused on women who reported NSAID use that surpassed Dr. Curhan’s recommendations: they took two doses a week for at last six years. Researchers found that these users were 10 percent more likely to experience hearing loss than people who used them for less than one year. In other words: if there’s no reason to take them, don’t.
Zeroing In on the Problem
One story on the study maintains that drugs like aspirin “are thought to damage the ear by removing protection from the inner ear, reducing blood supply, and damaging the tiny hairs that register sound.” The study’s researchers took data from an ongoing project known as the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS1), which kicked off in 1976 and involved women between the ages of 44 and 69. Every two years, they were asked about their painkiller use. In 2012, the participants were asked if they were experiencing any hearing problems. Researchers then zeroed in those who said “yes” and tried to figure out what links there were between over-the-counter pain medication and increased hearing loss.
The same story noted that the hearing loss study “didn’t include women who had hearing problems dating to before 1990 or those who’d had cancer, as some cancer drugs are known to affect hearing.” That said, the study did balance out factors such as age, body mass, alcohol consumption, smoking, ethnicity and medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension. The study’s researchers were also careful to vet the results against the participant’s age since, well, hearing doesn’t exactly get better the older we get. The Reuters story noted that both aspirin and the painkiller Vicodin (which contains acetaminophen) have both been connected to hearing loss with overuse in past studies. Ibuprofen is less harmful in high, long-term doses, the study concluded.
Hearing What’s Best
Of the original 56,000 women who reportedly used over-the-counter painkillers long-term, almost 19,000 developed hearing loss. (That’s an eye-opening 34%.) Still, before women start flushing their Aleve down the toilet, the Reuters story noted that “researchers estimate that [only]about 5.5 percent of these hearing loss cases might be attributable to NSAID or acetaminophen use.” Part of the problem rests in the fact that hearing loss is completely self-reported and not through hearing tests. In fact, some of the hearing loss tied to painkillers “might be tied to the underlying medical problems people took pain relievers to treat,” one researcher told Reuters. The article even cites people who take analgesics for arthritis as being prone to heart disease and diabetes—two conditions that are both connected to hearing problems.
So, while experts wring their hands over how much impact painkillers have on hearing, they at least agree on the solutions. That’s because ultimately, the root cause is pain. Still, for those who swear by a few tabs of Motrin, it’s worth considering just how effective basic exercise can be in managing chronic pain, the Reuters feature said. And in terms of hearing loss, “protection from excessive noise still remains the best way to [save your hearing].” They’re simple steps that underscore just how dependent we’ve become on medicine that may, in the long run, not be helping us at all. Drugs—even seemingly innocent over-the-counter ones—can cause more harm than good. Addicts, more than anyone, know the fine line between a legitimate need and an empty habit. When it comes to painkillers, many people may be ignoring that line altogether and turning a deaf ear on all the warnings telling them that in the long run, they’re actually making themselves feel worse, not better.
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