Is There A Link Between Opioid Use And Hearing Loss?

By Kelly Burch 02/22/18

One of the most life-changing possible side effects of opioid use goes virtually undiscussed. 

Image: 
a man putting his hand to his ear

Chekesha Ellis knew when she was prescribed opioids after a surgery that she was at risk for developing addiction. What she didn’t know was that her opioid addiction would eventually cause her to go deaf. 

A doctor was the first person to point that fact out to her. “He said, ‘Ms. Ellis, I cannot write another script for you. That’s why you’re going deaf,’“ she told NJ.com back in 2014. 

While awareness about the addictive qualities of opioids has become more widespread, one side effect is virtually never discussed: hearing loss. 

“Hearing loss is a very real side effect (of opioid use),” Judy Huch, a licensed audiologist and the founder of the non-profit Grace Hearing Center in Tucson, Arizona, wrote in an opinion piece for The Hill. “Some changes in hearing can happen over time, or by just one binge.”

Studies have shown that opioid use—including methadone and the opioid antagonist, naltrexone—can lead to profound hearing loss. One small-scale study of men who abused opioids found that 50% experienced hearing loss that couldn’t be explained through their exposure to loud noises. 

“Health professionals need to be aware of the possible ototoxic (toxic to the ear) effects of opioids, since early detection of hearing loss from opium abuse may lead to cessation of abuse and further progression of hearing loss,” study authors wrote, while recommending that the issue be studied further. 

Huch notes that doctors aren’t sure exactly why opioid use can cause hearing loss, but it is believed to have to do with blood circulation. Circulation is important for hearing, but since the parts of the ear are so small they can easily be affected when circulation slows.

Many people who have hearing loss caused by opioid use or abuse, including Chekesha Ellis, need to be treated with cochlear implants, not just hearing aids. This course of treatment is expensive, and adds an often unrecognized aspect to the financial impact of the opioid crisis. 

“In November 2017 the White House reported that the epidemic cost the U.S. economy $500 billion in 2015,” Huch writes. “This includes loss of life, addiction treatment, court costs and medical care (hearing loss is not mentioned).”

Implants cost about $100,000 to have, she notes. However, there are also other economic impacts of hearing loss caused by opioids. 

“Studies show that workers with untreated severe to profound hearing loss may earn $12,000 less than a normal hearing coworker,” Huch writes. “This decrease in pay and challenges of communication will keep those with hearing loss from moving up the pay scale in most jobs. Layer on an addiction and keeping a job is challenging to say the least.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.

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