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Posted on: Thursday, October 18, 2001

Rapid hearing loss in both ears considered rare in healthy folks

By Rita Rubin
USA Today

Hearing loss that progresses rapidly in both ears, such as experienced by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, is "very rare" in people who were previously healthy, a National Institutes of Health researcher says.

Limbaugh, 50, told his listeners who tuned in to his show last week that he has lost 100 percent of his hearing in his left ear and 80 percent in the right in the past 4 months.

"There is a theory as to what's happening, but I'm going to keep that to myself," said Limbaugh, who is not discussing his condition with reporters.

Limbaugh spokeswoman Amir Forester said Tuesday that he "doesn't know what he has." Limbaugh did tell listeners that he has seen many specialists and has undergone a battery of tests, including blood work and a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Robert Dobie, of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, discussed possible causes of rapidly progressive bilateral hearing loss — involving both ears — which he called rare.

Some reports have linked Limbaugh's condition to the headset he wears while on the air, but Dobie said this type of hearing loss "is not from noise exposure."

"It wouldn't be that quick," he said. "It's not enough noise. That's an unduly alarming thing to say."

Patients with this type of hearing loss typically undergo an MRI scan to rule out tumors, an unlikely cause in adults, Dobie said. They're also usually tested for syphilis, which once was a common cause for this type of hearing loss, he said.

Today, possible reasons for rapidly progressive bilateral hearing loss include autoimmune inner ear disease, or AIED, or abuse of Vicodin, a narcotic pain reliever, said Dobie, director of the division of extramural research at the deafness institute.

In AIED, the immune system goes awry and damages the inner ear. Besides hearing loss, about half of those with AIED also experience balance problems. This type of hearing loss also can be caused by other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Dobie said.

Researchers at the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles have reported a link between Vicodin abuse and rapid hearing loss, although a cause-and-effect relationship has not been proven.

For both AIED and Vicodin-associated hearing loss, the first treatment usually is steroids, which, in the case of AIED, have been shown to halt and even reverse progression if started early, Dobie said.

Limbaugh said he is taking medication.