As anybody who experiences symptoms can tell you, chronic tinnitus is not “just a noise”–it’s a painful condition that can affect your whole self and your quality of life. It can affect you physically, draining your energy. It can affect you mentally, making you foggy and distracted. It can affect you socially, isolating you from social situations with friends and family. And it can affect you emotionally, spiking anxiety and driving some patients into deep depressions.
Yes, tinnitus can be challenging enough on its own. But what if you were to add another painful condition on top of it? Unfortunately, this is the reality of many tinnitus patients who find their symptoms linked to headaches. But researchers are working hard to understand the connection which may lead to more answers about tinnitus itself.
What is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is when you hear sound that doesn’t have an external source. Patients usually experience tinnitus as a persistent, high-pitched ringing in the ears, but it can also be a buzzing, humming, roaring, shrieking or the sound of their own heartbeat. Tinnitus symptoms can be low-pitched or high-pitched, the volume can vary and patients can experience it in one or both ears. Many people with tinnitus find their symptoms to be bothersome yet manageable, a background noise that’s easy to ignore. But for millions of others, chronic tinnitus is an unbearable and debilitating condition that intrudes on their lives day and night.
Tinnitus is not a disease in itself, but rather a symptom of something else going on in the body. Doctors and researchers typically connect tinnitus to conditions including noise-induced hearing loss, certain vascular disorders, meniere’s disease or side effects from medication. However, more research is being done into the connection between headaches and tinnitus, the root cause of both and what that means for viable treatment options.
What Do Tinnitus Patients and Headache Patients Have in Common?
On a surface level, it’s worth noting that both tinnitus sufferers and people who suffer from headaches share many common complaints and concerns. People who struggle with headache and tinnitus symptoms both experience sleep disturbances, as insomnia is common in both groups. When symptoms flare up, both groups struggle with mental cognition and maintaining focus. Both groups tend to isolate themselves from social situations. Perhaps most importantly, both groups seem to be highly susceptible to heightened stress which can both bring on their symptoms and make them worse. Both tinnitus and headache disorders are highly correlated with anxiety. Once symptoms set in, patients tend to worry about them–what they mean and if they’ll ever go away. This causes more anxiety which then intensifies symptoms, creating a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
How Are Headaches and Tinnitus Connected?
Tinnitus is associated with several kinds of headache disorders. These include:
- Migraine headaches: in some patients, tinnitus only appears or gets worse during migraine attacks.
- Migraines brought on by cutaneous allodynia: cutaneous allodynia is when migraines are brought on by repetitive, painless touching to the skin and scalp. The pain can be brought on by common activities like hair brushing, shaving, showering or by wearing glasses or earing. In patients with cutaneous allodynia, headaches and tinnitus sometimes occur simultaneously in response to the touching.
- Migrainous infarction: rarely, tinnitus may occur during a migrainous infarctions, or a stroke brought on by a migraine during the aura phase of the attack.
- Idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH): IIH is increased pressure around the brain that’s not caused by a tumor. IIH is most common in obese women of childbearing age, and its symptoms include headaches, vision problems, shoulder pain and pulsatile tinnitus, or tinnitus where the patient is hearing the beating of their own heart. In fact, the symptoms of IIH are often confused with those of migraine headaches, so the presence of pulsatile tinnitus can help doctors come to an IIH diagnosis.
- Post-concussive headaches: headaches after a concussion or mild traumatic brain injury, are one of the most common side effects of a head injury. These headaches may be part of a cluster of symptoms and side effects called post-concussive syndrome, which can include tinnitus.
Many researchers have developed theories to explain why tinnitus and headaches can co-occur. Some believe that both could be brought on by sudden abnormal activity in various parts of the brain. More studies need to be done to pin down the cause and where exactly in the brain it could stem from.
How Can I Treat Tinnitus and Headaches When They Occur Together?
Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use that can help both tinnitus and headaches. These include:
- Get diagnosed: start with your personal doctor, and do it sooner rather than later, as delaying treatment can delay relief. Ask your doctor to rule out conditions that could be ringing on your symptoms, including mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. Ask your doctor if an antidepressant may be right for you as they have been shown to help with both headaches and tinnitus symptoms.
- Avoid pain medication overuse: opioids and narcotic-based drugs can often lead to worsening of symptoms, especially in patients with post-concussive headaches. Even over-the-counter pain medications may initially help with headaches but can lead to rebound headaches and worsening tinnitus symptoms.
- Lead a healthy lifestyle and identify your triggers: lack of exercise, a poor diet, and loud or unpleasant sounds are just a few of the things that can trigger both headaches and tinnitus attacks.
Explore alternative therapies: non-drug therapies that may help with both headaches and tinnitus include yoga, meditation, guided relaxation and acupuncture.