Pain Relievers Linked to Hearing Loss in Women

By Pat Anson, Editor

Long-term use of acetaminophen and ibuprofen raises the risk of hearing loss in older women, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston analyzed data from over 55,000 women between the ages of 48 and 73 enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study that began in 1976.

They found that about 1 in 6 women who used ibuprofen or acetaminophen for at least six years suffered some degree of hearing loss. No such link was found in the women who used regular doses of aspirin.

“Although the magnitude of higher risk of hearing loss with analgesic use was modest, given how commonly these medications are used, even a small increase in risk could have important health implications,” said senior author Gary Curhan, MD, a physician in the Channing Division of Network Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Assuming causality, this would mean that approximately 16.2 percent of hearing loss occurring in these women could be due to ibuprofen or acetaminophen use.”

Curhan noted the study was limited to mostly older, white women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study and that further investigation with larger and more diverse populations would be needed to better understand the connection between hearing loss and pain reliever use.

The researchers have previously published findings that indicate high frequency use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) and acetaminophen is associated with hearing loss in men and younger women. High doses of aspirin have also been associated with hearing loss.

The new study did not look at why the medications affect hearing, but previous research suggests the pain relievers affect blood and oxygen flow to sensitive parts of the ear that may compromise hearing.

About two- thirds of women in the U.S. over the age of 60 report some degree of hearing loss.

“Hearing loss is extremely common in the United States and can have a profound impact on quality of life,” said Curhan. “Finding modifiable risk factors could help us identify ways to lower risk before hearing loss begins and slow progression in those with hearing loss.”

Many people wrongly believe that over-the-counter pain relievers are relatively safe because they are available without a prescription. But studies have linked NSAIDs and acetaminophen to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, kidney problems and liver failure.

“I worry that people think NSAIDs and acetaminophen are completely safe, and that they don’t need to think about their potential (side effects),” Curhan told Time.  “But particularly for people who are taking them for chronic pain, I try to encourage them to look at why they are having the pain, not what they can take to try to treat the pain.”