Opioid and Alcohol Use: The Dark Side of Hearing Loss

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The headlines tell us again and again about the opioid crisis. They share stories of addiction from coast to coast and tales of cities and towns implementing new programs and even declaring states of emergency in an attempt to curb the growing problem. Theories abound as to why addiction, especially opioid addiction, has grown so wildly out of control across the country.

One such theory has led researchers to investigate what role hearing loss may play in opioid and alcohol issues, and their findings are shedding new light on at least some of the opioid crisis.

Hearing loss and opioid and alcohol issues

In a recent study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, data from 86,186 adults was used to determine if a relationship existed between hearing loss and substance abuse.

Analysis of the data gathered as part of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, confirmed that there is a correlation between hearing loss and substance abuse. The team found that this was especially true for those under the age of 50.

According to the report, published in the April 2019 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine,

  • Hearing loss was independently associated with an increased likelihood of experiencing a substance use disorder.
  • Hearing loss was associated with a higher likelihood of a prescription opioid use disorder.
  • For those aged 35–49 years, hearing loss increased the likelihood of both an alcohol use disorder and a prescription opioid use disorder
  • Those aged 18-34 years, were at highest risk for prescription opioid use disorders.

The connection between hearing loss and opioid and alcohol use was clear in the study, but the question remains as to why there seems to be such a strong link.

Improving treatment

While more research is needed to understand the connection between substance abuse and hearing loss better, the researchers involved in this recent study have new theories they plan to explore. These experts now believe that the answer lies in how we treat those with hearing loss both for physical pain and for related mental health issues.

Michael McKee, MD, MPH, who led the recent research and runs the University of Michigan Deaf Health Clinic, highlights the complex needs of those with hearing loss when it comes to treatment. This group not only faces communication barriers with many health providers (barriers which have also been linked to repeat hospital stays and similar concerns) but may also be living with a certain level of social isolation which has been linked more than once to diagnoses such as anxiety and depression.

McKee points out that, “hearing loss is connected with a variety of health problems, including mental and physical health, that may place these individuals at risk for pain disorders. Also, the marginalizing effects of hearing loss, such as social isolation, may be creating higher rates of substance use disorders too.” He concludes that in many cases, physicians may simply find it easier to write a prescription.

It’s hard to argue that improving treatment to minimize communication barriers and include better access to mental and addiction-related services could help to reduce the startling numbers of those with hearing loss caught up in opioid and alcohol addiction.

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