Tinnitus And Chronic Fatigue: Are The Two Related?

Word fatigue

Coping with the incessant noise of tinnitus can be not only mentally taxing but also physically draining. Numerous studies have established a strong correlation between tinnitus, fatigue, and concurrent psychological disorders. The resulting high levels of stress can erode your emotional and mental well-being, making it increasingly difficult to find joy in everyday activities.

One frequently co-occurring condition is chronic fatigue syndrome, which goes beyond mere tiredness. Individuals with this syndrome face a severe, long-lasting condition that is challenging to diagnose and can substantially affect their overall health.

Comparing The Symptoms Of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome And Tinnitus

Just like tinnitus, not everyone experiences chronic fatigue syndrome the same way. Each person’s experience is unique, however some of the same symptoms may appear in both conditions.

Symptoms Of Tinnitus

Tinnitus is the perception of sound with no external source. You may hear a ringing, buzzing, hissing, roaring, clicking, humming, or other phantom noise. The sounds may be loud or soft, low or high pitched, and they may be constant or come and go.

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Tinnitus may be heard in one or both ears, or it could be vaguely in your head. In the vast majority of cases, tinnitus is subjective – that is, only you can hear it. With such a nebulous definition, it’s no wonder it can be hard to find a concrete diagnosis or treatment plan.

Other symptoms include:

  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia
  • Distraction, trouble concentrating, or brain fog
  • New or worsened mental health conditions like anxiety or depression
  • Changes in symptoms depending on posture, light, or other stimuli (somatosensory tinnitus)
  • Increased sensitivity to sound
  • Occasionally, tinnitus can be related to vertigo or dizziness (especially Meniere’s disease)

Symptoms Of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome (sometimes called myalgic encephalomyelitis or abbreviated to ME/CFS) is a condition that causes extreme fatigue lasting for six months or more, accompanied by symptoms that don’t improve with rest. This type of fatigue is worsened by physical or mental exercise, and can be related to fibromyalgia or muscle or joint pain. Without proper rest, you may experience a headache, low-grade fever, tender lymph nodes, or physical weakness.

Tired woman sitting at a desk

Other symptoms include:

  • Unable to get refreshing, restful sleep 
  • Trouble concentrating and memory problems
  • Mood swings, depression, and brain fog
  • Increased sensitivity to pain and light
  • Dizziness that worsens with moving from lying down or sitting to standing

It’s clear that chronic fatigue syndrome and tinnitus symptoms can overlap, but there is no scientific evidence showing a direct correlation. However, it’s worth noting that chronic fatigue syndrome can be considered a chronic stressor. Stress is known to create or worsen tinnitus distress, which feeds a vicious cycle, wherein the tinnitus patient experiences increased tinnitus as stress increases and increased stress as the tinnitus increases, leading to worsening tinnitus as this cycle continues.

Why Can Tinnitus Make You Feel Tired And Unfocused? 

If you are suffering from tinnitus, your brain is constantly working to fill in the auditory gaps that may come with hearing loss. Your brain will not tolerate incomplete information, so it generates tinnitus sounds to complete the auditory picture. Having to listen to this constant noise is very distracting, and you may find that you need to work harder to pay attention to the world around you. 

Research shows that tinnitus occurs in the parts of the brain that involve two attention-related networks: one that drives your focus and concentration, and one that controls your “background” attention when you’re not thinking about anything in particular. If you have chronic tinnitus, the phantom sounds demand more of your conscious attention, and you may struggle to achieve true relaxation and rest. This can lead to feelings of tiredness and fatigue. 

Changes In The Brain Resulting From Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is the number one cause of tinnitus, with as many as 90% of people with hearing loss also experiencing tinnitus. Studies show that these hearing changes can quite literally rewire your brain.

How Hearing Loss Affects The Brain

Hearing loss has many causes, including age-related changes (presbycusis). An estimated 40–50% of adults over the age of 65 years have a measurable hearing impairment. The effects of hearing loss go beyond ear and auditory symptoms and can impact your speech, memory, and even cognitive function.

Effortful listening is associated with increased stress responses, physical changes, and emotional/behavioral responses. In a study, structural MRI images discovered that people with poorer hearing also had a lower gray matter volume in that region. These findings suggest a possible biological link between sensory stimulation and brain structure and organization. 

Hearing Loss And Dementia

Hearing loss is one of the top risk factors for dementia. According to research by Frank Lin, M.D., Ph. D., at Johns Hopkins University: “Hearing loss can make the brain work harder, forcing it to strain to hear and fill in the gaps” – which comes at the expense of other thinking and memory systems. Another possibility is that hearing loss can cause the aging brain to shrink more quickly. Additionally, hearing loss tends to make people less social and engaged – and a lack of intellectual and social stimulation is another risk factor for dementia. 

In a study of over 600 adults, research showed that mild hearing loss doubled the risk of dementia, moderate hearing loss tripled this risk, and severe hearing impairment made people five times more likely to develop dementia. 

Stress And Chronic Tinnitus Go Hand-In-Hand

Stressed man holding his head in his hands

Subjective tinnitus can be very emotionally taxing, leading to stress, mood swings, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms. An increased stress level can worsen tinnitus, which may in turn worsen your emotional burden. Some say psychological stress causes tinnitus while others say that tinnitus causes stress. Researchers have yet to determine if stress causes or simply contributes to tinnitus, but most researchers agree that there is a close link between stress and tinnitus.

Similarly, stress and fatigue have a close relationship. Stress is known to trigger symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and many other exhausting health conditions. Chronic fatigue syndrome has many symptoms that range in severity. Take the time to understand these symptoms when speaking to your doctor.

Studies Exploring Stress And Tinnitus

There have been numerous studies exploring the biological markers that link tinnitus and stress:

  • Patients with sudden hearing loss and tinnitus said they experienced more stressful events and daily hassles. This suggests that tinnitus is a consequence of stress. (Schmitt et al. 2000)
  • Another study showed that a purposeful relaxation therapy program helped reduce anxiety, stress, and tinnitus disturbance. (Weber et al. 2002)
  • Tinnitus can cause structural differences in the brain. Scans and imaging tests of people with tinnitus showed that there are unexpected links between the limbic system (which is involved in emotions) and the auditory system. (Vanneste et al. 2010, Leaver et al. 2011)

What Is Adrenal Fatigue?

Adrenal fatigue is a term that describes a collection of nonspecific symptoms like body aches, fatigue, nervousness, sleep problems, digestive problems, and more. The adrenal glands produce a variety of essential hormones, including adrenaline. The medical term “adrenal insufficiency” refers to inadequate production of one or more of these hormones as a result of an underlying disease or surgery. Adrenal fatigue, on the other hand, may be used as a catch-all description of these symptoms when a formal diagnosis can’t be reached or tests come back normal.

Man suffering from adrenal fatigue

Adrenal insufficiency is diagnosed through blood tests or specialized stimulation tests that measure adrenal hormones. Signs and symptoms of adrenal insufficiency may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Body aches
  • Low energy
  • Low blood pressure
  • Lightheadedness
  • Depressive mood
  • Changes in metabolism

Adrenal fatigue is not a formal diagnosis, but it may explain a mild form of adrenal insufficiency caused by chronic stress. If you experience high levels of stress or are always in a fight-or-flight state of stress, the adrenal fatigue theory suggests that your adrenal glands just can’t keep up. This diagnosis remains unofficial because the symptoms of adrenal fatigue tend to be vague, and they may match many other conditions like anemia, autoimmune disorders, mental illness, infections, or problems with the heart, lungs, kidneys, or liver.

Regardless of the diagnosis, fatigue symptoms are very real and can have a major impact on your life. Both tinnitus and adrenal fatigue are related to stress. If you experience persistent stress, you can experience new or worsened tinnitus. 

Focus On Your Well-Being

There is a clear association between tinnitus, hearing loss, psychological stress, and fatigue symptoms. You may not experience every symptom, but it’s important to talk to your doctor about all your experiences so you can search for answers and find the right treatment for you.

Unfortunately, psychological comorbidities are often neglected. Sometimes tinnitus patients are given medications for the tinnitus alone, even though there is no known medicine or cure for chronic tinnitus.

Working closely with an audiologist, psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist is important for finding an effective and long-term treatment plan. If you have tinnitus, your doctor will likely recommend a hearing test. Your doctor might also recommend hearing aids or lifestyle changes to help you feel your best.

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