Common pain killers linked to hearing loss

Recently, I told you about the new study showing that Ritalin acts like cocaine to the brain. But yesterday, I heard on the radio that medical experts still believe firmly that medicating children with Ritalin is “appropriate treatment.”

With this type of acceptance for blindly drugging our children, is it any wonder we have millions of adults in this country addicted to prescription drugs?

Lately, Vicodin has made the news because several well-known people have come out publicly to announce their addictions. But there’s a new reason Vicodin is news.

Vicodin is one of the most commonly prescribed painkillers in the U.S. – and its also one of the most addictive. It’s a synthetic opiate, meaning it falls in the same drug family with heroin and morphine – and apparently it shares some of these drugs dangerous qualities. Usually, Vicodin is first prescribed to treat chronic pain, often in the back. Over time, the regular dosage stops helping, and patients start taking more. It becomes a vicious cycle, and an addiction is born. A government study reported that more than 1.6 million Americans are using Vicodin now for “non-medical reasons,” code for “addiction.” In an L.A. Times article on the issue, one doctor said, “It’s such a huge problem already that I don’t know how much bigger it could be.”

The addiction problem is bad enough. But now, new evidence suggests there’s another problem with Vicodin. Doctors at the House Ear Institute (HEC) in L.A. are reporting on a disturbing trend: dozens of patients on Vicodin are experiencing sudden hearing loss.

Since April 1999, doctors at HEC have identified at least 48 cases of sudden, severe hearing loss that they believe are linked to prolonged painkiller use. (Although Vicodin is the most common drug of its type, the hearing loss can be caused by any other brand name that combines acetominophen with hydrocodone. Other brand names include Hyrdrocet, Lorcet, and Norco.)

The doctors are still studying the trend, but at this point the real risk seems to be for people who take these painkillers for prolonged periods of time and who take too much. But with a drug like Vicodin, that’s easy to do. And the thousands of people who fall into that category are not likely to consider themselves addicted, until it is too late.

HEC has reported its findings to the FDA, and in response, the manufacturers are now required to include a warning on the label about the potential side effect. But critics say this has done little to inform the public or doctors of the potential risks. The FDA says it considers deafness from Vicodin “very rare,” considering the number of people that take opiate painkillers and the numbers HEC has found. But HEC is quick to point out that there are probably many more doctors out there who aren’t making the connection, and a lot more Vicodin abusers out there who don’t know – or don’t want to admit – that they have a problem.

It may be surprising, but hearing loss from medications isn’t a new problem. An HSI member recently wrote to us about hearing loss, and we answered in our November issue (which you’ll see in your mailbox in a week or two). In our response, we point out that antiobiotics like streptomycin, neomycin, and kanamycin can cause hearing loss, as well as various chemotherapy agents. Of course, hearing loss often accompanies aging, due to free radical damage and reduced blood flow to the ear.

Doctors aren’t yet entirely sure how Vicodin causes hearing loss. One theory is that the opiates damage the delicate hair cells inside the inner ear, which act like tiny microphones to transmit sound vibrations to the brain. The effect also may involve nerve endings in the ear called opioid receptors, which are sensitive to overstimulation.

Since we’re not yet sure how Vicodin interferes with hearing, it’s not clear how to improve or restore hearing for those affected. But in the November issue of HSI Members Alert, we will tell about several natural formulas that have a long history of improving hearing. Antioxidants like zinc can repair free radical damage and improve blood flow to the ear. And a potent supplement called vinpocetine can increase circulation to the ear, delivering more oxygen to the cells and preventing cell death. (We recommend a formula called VincaHear by Life Enhancement Products in California. To learn more now, you can visit their website at

But of course the real key to preventing this specific and sudden problem is to avoid taking painkillers like Vicodin in the first place. Not only will this protect your hearing, it will protect you from the possibility of developing a dangerous addiction. If you suffer from chronic pain, there are many natural alternatives to help you. Many people find relief from lower back pain in willow bark extract, which is widely available. Willow bark extract contains salicin, a natural substance that synthetic salicylate derivates like NSAIDs try to emulate.

In one study, a daily dose of willow bark extract with 240 mg of salicin relieved lower back pain within one week. Nearly 40 percent of the participants were pain-free after four weeks on the supplement. Best of all, willow bark showed no sign of side effects or gastrointestinal damage that is often seen with NSAIDs.

We’ve also told you several times about the effectiveness of PainAway, a topical oil-based blend of more than 10 herbal painkillers. In our offices, several people have used PainAway to treat the chronic pain of injuries, some that were decades old. All reported great results, with long-lasting effects and almost immediate relief. For more information on PainAway, visit

Just this week, we started researching another promising pain-killer. Drawn from the bark of the Chuchuhuasi plant in the Amazon jungle, this supplement appears to be a potent pain-reliever and muscle-relaxant that can ease arthritis and back pain. In fact, the name Chuchuhuasi translates to “trembling back.” We’ve just started our investigation into this natural remedy. We’ll tell you more about it in the January issue of HSI Members Alert.

We’ll keep looking for natural ways to fight chronic pain – and ways to combat hearing loss, no matter what its cause. If you know someone who takes Vicodin or another similar prescription painkiller, please pass this information along. Everyone needs to hear this message loud and clear: not only can these drugs rob you of your life through addiction, they can also rob you of your hearing as well.

Copyright 1997-2002 by Institute of Health Sciences, L.L.C.