Opioids are causing people to go deaf — here's what lawmakers can do

Opioids are causing people to go deaf — here's what lawmakers can do
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As the nation wrestles with the expanding opioid crisis, one costly aspect is often overlooked, even by doctors: Opioid abuse could be linked to progressive hearing loss.

If the medical community required hearing exams by audiologists annually, like mammograms and colonoscopies over a certain age, there would be more anecdotal evidence of the cost of this drug crisis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even with mounting evidence, doesn’t list hearing loss with most co-morbid conditions including, prescription opioids.

In 2014 almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids, such as methadone, oxycodone (such as OxyContin) and hydrocodone.


Deaths from opioid abuse were five times higher in 2016 than 1999. This epidemic is so widespread in the U.S. that our overall life expectancy has dropped for the second year in a row for 2016.

Hearing loss is a very real side effect — especially when those containing ibuprofen and acetaminophen are combined in a pain prescription. While no one knows the exact cause, it may be related to poor circulation caused by pain relievers.

Circulation is critical to hearing, because the pathway of blood and the nutrients it carries to the ear is so small it can be interrupted very easily.

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

Some changes in hearing can happen over time, or by just one binge but cases of profound hearing loss caused by opioids can only be treated by cochlear implants.

Cochlear Implants are largely covered by insurance, unlike hearing aids, but you must have coverage. 

The cost of a Cochlear Implants can be as much as $100,000, which includes surgery, device, and rehabilitation which is almost always covered by insurance.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) reports the cash cost exceeds $40,000 (if for any reason insurance does not cover).  

Cochlear Implants bring back enough hearing for many to hear over the phone with no visual cues and if implanted on children before the age three, language development is close to non-hearing-impaired peers.

The cost of hearing loss extends beyond the immediate cost of implants. Studies show that workers with untreated severe to profound hearing loss may earn n $12,000 less than a normal hearing coworker. [put link here. 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.

The fallout that opioid addiction causes are multilayered and many of us do not realize what they can lead to.

Here in Arizona, agencies are pushing more public awareness and supplying real time opioid data each state will have their resources for facts, figures and what help is available in your area if you or someone you know suffers from opioid addiction.

In addition to seeking counseling for addiction, having a full diagnostic hearing exam is imperative for this population as well to give them tools to help rebuild their lives and be productive strong individuals.

Hearing loss needs to be a bigger part of the national health discussion, but all too often it is simply dismissed as an “old-age problem” and therefore not a big deal. It is not.

Hearing loss is a real and growing issue as the opioid epidemic expands. The medical community must call for real diagnostic hearing exam by a qualified audiologist whenever opioid abuse is suspected.  

This puts another trigger in place to find help and better identify problems and help come up with true solutions to keep people connected and employed.

Judy Huch is a licensed audiologist and the founder of the nonprofit Grace Hearing Center in Tucson along with Oro Valley Audiology and Tanque Verde Audiology. She serves on the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.