Men who regularly use readily available, over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen, may be putting their hearing in jeopardy. New research, published in the American Journal of Medicine, found that men who took analgesics just two or more times a week on a regular basis were at greater risk of hearing loss than those who took the drugs less frequently.
THE DETAILS: In the study, researchers assessed 26,917 men aged 40 to 74 starting in 1986. Study subjects completed detailed questionnaires that year and every two years thereafter. Results showed that each of the analgesics under review was independently associated with hearing loss, which occurred as early as a year after subjects began taking the drugs. With nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen and naproxen sodium, risk increased the longer the men used the drugs. What’s more, the association between the pain-killers and hearing loss was stronger in men younger than 50 than it was with older men.
WHAT IT MEANS: The study is a reminder that routine use of medicines, even ones sold without a prescription, can have unexpected side effects. Fortunately, the odds of significant hearing loss remain low even with regular analgesic use. “The overall risk of diagnosed hearing loss in the U.S. is about 1 percent per year, or one in a hundred individuals,” says study coauthor Sharon G. Curhan, MD, of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “Regular use of analgesics pushes the incidence higher, but in terms of absolute numbers, it’s still a relatively low risk." She and her team are not trying to overemphasize the impact of analgesics, she says. However, she notes that they may have identified one of the few preventable causes of hearing loss.
Dr. Curhan and her colleagues can’t say for sure how analgesic use causes hearing loss, nor can they say for sure that the same level of hearing-loss effect would be seen in women. “It’s important to do a study on women as well,” advises Dr. Curhan.
To protect yourself, Dr. Curhan recommends the following:
• Know what you’re dealing with. Check with your doctor about the risks and benefits of each of the drugs you take. Even if your doctor's aware of what you take, he may not suggest trying something else if you don't bring it up. Ask about other options or therapies for pain relief.
• See what else might work. If you’re active and take analgesics as a matter of course, but not for a serious or chronic medical condition, you may want to consider alternatives. See our story on options for back pain, which, along with NSAIDS, lists eight science-backed alternatives. Try the Alexander Technique, do exercises for neck and shoulder pain, and stop texting so much. Ask your doctor for suggestions.
• Evaluate your medication use. Don't assume that anything you buy over-the-counter has to be safe. Make sure you're following the usage guidelines, and if you're taking something on a regular basis, consider whether you need to take a closer look at what's causing the symptoms. “In my opinion the main takeaway from this study,” says Dr. Curhan, “is that even though these drugs are available in the drugstore without a prescription, they are still powerful medications with potential side effects.”