Did Drugs Cause Limbaugh's Hearing Loss?

ByABC News via logo

N E W   Y O R K, Oct. 13, 2003 -- While radio giant Rush Limbaugh tries to beat his pain killer addiction in a rehab clinic, questions about what really caused his hearing loss in recent years persist.

Questions have risen about the autoimmune inner ear disease that caused Limbaugh profound deafness between October of 2001 and January of 2002. The radio host subsequently regained hearing through the use of cochlear implants.

Research has shown that the drugs seem to sabotage the workings of the inner ear, causing permanent damage. But the drugs do not appear to affect the cochlear nerve, which brings sound into the brain.

Limbaugh's cochlear implant doctor, Dr. Jennifer Derebery, an otolaryngologist at the House Ear Clinic in Los Angeles, says it is possible that there is a connection between Limbaugh's sudden hearing loss and pill abuse, but she said there is no way to know for sure.

"We don't know why some people, but apparently not most, who take large doses may lose their hearing," Derebery said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "The reason we don't know is that because we ultimately have to have biopsy specimens of the inner ear to tell that. but you can't biopsy the inner ear of a person who is alive because we are going to destroy the hearing," she said.

If the cause of the deafness were painkiller abuse, his treatment still would have been the same, said Derebery said. The only way he would be able to hear again is through the use of a cochlear implant, she said.

Road to Recovery

Limbaugh just finished his first weekend in a drug rehabilitation clinic, and he will spend the next 27 days fighting to beat his pain pill addiction once and for all.

After that, the conservative radio host will face the long struggle to rebuild his credibility in the wake of the stunning on-air confession he made to his 20 million fans Friday.

"I am addicted to prescription pain medication," Limbaugh said on his nationally syndicated radio show. "I first started taking prescription painkillers some years ago when my doctor prescribed them to treat post-surgical pain following spinal surgery. "Unfortunately the surgery was unsuccessful, and I continued to have severe pain in my lower back and also in my neck due to herniated discs. I am still experiencing that pain."

Immediately after the announcement, he checked himself into the clinic.

Limbaugh did not specify which type of painkillers he has been taking. But Limbaugh's former housekeeper claims she helped him buy thousands of dollars of prescription pain killers over a four-year period, including the highly-addictive Oxycontin, a potent painkiller known as "hillbilly heroin" because of its black-market popularity in some rural areas.

By his former housekeeper's account, Limbaugh took up to 30 Oxycontin pills a day. Limbaugh says the reports on his efforts to obtain prescription pain killers contain inaccuracies and distortions. He did not say what they might be.

Limbaugh is now facing some serious legal heat. Sources tell ABCNEWS a Florida investigation is underway into how he got hold of the prescription pain killers he admits to taking.

One addiction expert says Limbaugh's decision to check himself into rehab indicates that he's serious about turning his life around.

"Rush Limbaugh's done exactly the right thing. He's admitted he has a problem and sought treatment," said Susan Foster, a vice president and director of policy research and analysis at the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

While Limbaugh publicly admitted his addiction after his former housekeeper talked to a tabloid about his pain killer abuse, he may have been in denial about his problems for some time.

During one of his radio shows, Limbaugh said that whites are not punished for drug abuse as often as blacks are.

"We have to have more white convictions," Limbaugh said. "It seems to me a lot of white people are getting away, and that would make me mad. As a citizen it makes me mad. I don't care what the color of my skin is. It makes me mad that people are getting away with it."

Limbaugh says he got addicted because of chronic pain. It will be best for him to work with a physician to find a regime that doesn't lead to addiction or to try alternatives to pills, Foster said.

In the past, Limbaugh has shown no mercy for celebrities who are addicted to drugs, and has in fact used his radio show as a platform to lambaste them.

"It's a crime because everybody knows it's no good," Limbaugh said in one of his past radio shows. "It's destructive, it's demoralizing and the people who are caught doing this stuff ought to be sent away. They ought to be punished."

Such statements have put Limbaugh's credibility on the line.

Even before the conservative star admitted his addiction on Friday, it had already become political fodder for Democrats.

"In order to be assured prescription drugs in this country, you could hire Rush Limbaugh's housekeeper or elect me president of the United States," said Sen. John Kerry, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

Meanwhile, Limbaugh didn't ask for sympathy from his fans. He told his loyal listeners that whatever the outcome of his fight against addiction, he should not be viewed as a role model.

"I refuse to let anyone think I am doing something great here, when there are people you never hear about, who face long odds and never resort to such escapes," he said.

Foster says no one can predict whether or not Limbaugh will make good progress over the next 30 days.

"Some people can get it, can solve the problem, get into recovery, and maintain recovery in 30 days," Foster said. "With other people it takes much longer," she said.