BOSTON, MA—Headache? Back pain? At the first sign of pain, you might reach for a pain-relieving medicine to sooth your bodily woes.
Analgesics are the most frequently used medications in the United States and are commonly used to treat a variety of medical conditions.
But although popping a pill may make the pain go away, it may do some damage to your ears.
According to a study by researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), women who took ibuprofen or acetaminophen two or more days per week had an increased risk of hearing loss. The more often a woman took either of these medications, the higher her risk for hearing loss. Also, the link between these medicines and hearing loss tended to be greater in women younger than 50 years old, especially for those who took ibuprofen six or more days per week.
There was no association between aspirin use and hearing loss.
The study will be published in the September 15, 2012 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The researchers prospectively examined the relationship between frequency of aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen use and risk of hearing loss among women in the Nurses' Health Study II.
Data from 62,261 women ages 31 to 48 years at baseline was studied. The women were followed for 14 years, from 1995 to 2009. Ten thousand and twelve women self-reported hearing loss.
Compared with women who used ibuprofen less than once per week, those who used ibuprofen 2 to 3 days per week had a 13 percent increased risk for hearing loss, while women who used the medication 4 to 5 days per week had a 21 percent increased risk. For those who used ibuprofen six or more days per week, the increased risk was 24 percent.
Compared with women who used acetaminophen less than once per week, women who used acetaminophen 2 to 3 days per week had an 11 percent increased risk for hearing loss, while women taking the medicine 4 to 5 days per week had a 21 percent increased risk.
"Possible mechanisms might be that NSAIDs may reduce blood flow to the cochlea—the hearing organ—and impair its function," said first study author Sharon G. Curhan, MD, BWH Channing Division of Network Medicine. "Acetaminophen may deplete factors that protect the cochlea from damage."
Curhan notes that although analgesics are widely available without a prescription, they are still medicines that carry potential side effects.
"If individuals find a need to take these types of medications regularly, they should consult with their health care professional to discuss the risks and benefits and to explore other possible alternatives," said Curhan.
Over 50 percent of American adults suffer from high-frequency hearing loss by the time they reach 60 years old. One-third of women in their 50s and nearly two-thirds in their 60s have experienced hearing loss.
According to the World Health Organization, adult-onset hearing loss is the sixth most common disease burden in high-income countries.
This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (DC010811 and CA50385) and by Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) is a 793-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare. BWH has more than 3.5 million annual patient visits, is the largest birthing center in New England and employs nearly 15,000 people. The Brigham's medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in patient care, quality improvement and patient safety initiatives, and its dedication to research, innovation, community engagement and educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Biomedical Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, involving nearly 1,000 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by nearly $625 million in funding. BWH continually pushes the boundaries of medicine, including building on its legacy in organ transplantation by performing the first face transplants in the U.S. in 2011. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses' and Physicians' Health Studies, OurGenes and the Women's Health Initiative. For more information and resources, please visit BWH's online newsroom.
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