Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) affects almost every part of the body – including your ears! If you experience RA, you may be at an increased risk for ear problems. This is because RA can affect the tiny bones, joints and cartilage within the ear.
What the Research Shows
The connection between RA and ear problems was discussed back in 2006 when the Arthritis Foundation released a study showing RA patients are at increased risk for hearing loss as well as autoimmune inner ear disease.
More recent research, published in 2016 in Bentham Open, more clearly defines this link. Researchers conducted a review of over 20,000 patients with RA and found that such patients are approximately four times more likely to develop sensorineural hearing loss (caused by cell and nerve damage) compared to those without. RA patients do not appear to be more at risk for other types of hearing loss, however.
“RA is associated with multiple extra-articular manifestations (EAMs),” the researchers explained. “Middle ear, cochlea, and the auditory nerve are suspected sites of RA activity, and hearing loss is a possible novel EAM of RA … Early screening of RA patients with pure tone audiometry should be considered.”
The Role of Your Environment
The study found that there are other contributors that can exacerbate risk of hearing loss in RA patients. These risk factors include noise exposure, cigarette smoke and alcohol consumption. They noted that long-term use of alcohol put RA patients especially at risk.
It is possible that treating RA alone can help with hearing loss. As with any patient with RA, researchers recommend quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol and incorporating steroids and DMARDs to treat the condition and reduce risk of hearing loss.
Outcomes for RA Patients
The researchers for this study did not clearly define guidelines for treating hearing impairment in RA patients.
“Patients with RA are at higher risk of hearing impairment compared to healthy subjects in their course of the disease. The hearing impairment in RA seems to be a multifactorial condition. However, the mechanisms of injury, as well as the relative risk factors, are not completely clear,” said the authors.
Rheumatoid arthritis affects roughly one percent of the population, and around 75 percent of RA patients experience sensorineural hearing loss. Hearing aids can improve outcomes for people with this type of hearing loss, whether or not they have RA.
For more information about the link or to schedule an appointment with Wilmington Audiology today.