House vs. House: Vicodin Addiction and Hearing Loss

Hearing expert Dr. John House calls out Dr. Gregory House on Vicodin addiction.

September 19, 2008, 2:01 PM

Sept. 20, 2008— -- "Are you the famous Dr. House on television?"

During my career as a physician, there has been confusion regarding which Dr. House I am. I was confident that they were referring to my father, Dr. Howard House, the founder of the House Ear Institute, or my uncle, Dr. William House, who created and implanted the first FDA-approved cochlear implant.

But now I have discovered that there is another popular "Dr. House," TV's Dr. Gregory House on Fox's "House, M.D."

The show's popularity is not to be denied, but I have a very real concern about a message and theme that runs through each episode. It is not his poor bedside manner. It is not his mistreatment of residents. It is his addiction to Vicodin (acetaminophen/ hydrocodone) that is the problem.

Here at the House Clinic, my colleagues and I have seen a significant number of patients who have become addicted to Vicodin and have gone completely deaf. They have been taking 15 to 75 tablets per day and in a short period of time have developed a rapidly progressive hearing loss, which leads to permanent total deafness.

New research released this week by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that people are receiving important health information from prime-time television shows. Although the study looked at the storyline of another medical drama and not "House, M.D.," the important finding is that 45.6 percent of the audience surveyed remembered the key medical information six weeks later.

So what is the weekly message to the millions of viewers of "House, M.D." on the safety of an addiction to Vicodin?

In watching Dr. House on TV, one gets the impression that his addiction has no consequences other than affecting his medical judgment. I know "House, M.D." is a drama, but the real-life drama surrounding an addiction to Vicodin can be life-altering.

It is bad enough that the show depicts a doctor treating patients while addicted to a serious narcotic, but Vicodin is ototoxic, which means, if abused, it can cause irreversible and total hearing loss.

Vicodin and other hydrocodone/acetaminophen prescription painkillers affect people differently. One person may take Vicodin for years and not suffer any hearing loss. Another person may take large doses for only six months and suffer profound permanent hearing loss.

One of my patients wants me to share her story, using only her first name. A wife and mother, Shannon was prescribed Vicodin for a back injury. The doctor she saw continued to give her more and more Vicodin for more than a year. Eventually, Shannon was taking 40 to 50 Vicodin a day. As she describes it, she went from never taking any pills to becoming a complete addict.

The Vicodin may have temporarily taken away the pain in her back but it permanently killed the sensory neural hair cells in her inner ear, leaving her completely deaf.

Shannon spent eight years living in total silence because once the damage in the inner ear is severe enough, not even hearing aids can help. Over the years she cut herself off from everyone and everything. Shannon says the depression and isolation from her deafness were worse than the addiction. I am happy to say she recently received a cochlear implant and has returned to the hearing world.

Since the TV's first episode of "House, M.D.," I have been concerned with the show's message and have attempted several times to educate the writers and producers regarding the danger of Vicodin abuse. Despite my efforts, Dr. Gregory House's addiction continues.

"House, M.D." started its fifth season on Sept. 16. Any delay in the start of the season because of a looming actors strike gives the writers for "House, M.D." the chance to write an episode involving a patient with sudden hearing loss.

It would be a medical mystery just like every other episode. The cause of his patient's sudden hearing loss would turn out to be a Vicodin addiction. In the episode, Dr. House could finally enter rehab for his own addiction to Vicodin. More importantly, thousands of loyal viewers will learn how an addiction to Vicodin can cause total deafness. What a wonderful public service opportunity.

Maybe the writers are saving that story line for the series finale?

Dr. John House is a practicing physician at the House Clinic and president of the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, Calif.

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