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Here's How Migraine Headaches and Tinnitus are Linked

September 23, 2023
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Written by
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A
Amy Sarow, AuD, CCC-A

Dr. Amy Sarow is a practicing clinical audiologist and serves as Audiology Lead for Soundly. Her expertise and experience span topics including tinnitus, cochlear implants, hearing aid technology, and hearing testing. She holds a doctoral degree in audiology from the University of Iowa. During her residency at Mayo Clinic, Dr. Sarow was inspired by the three-tiered, patient-centered approach, incorporating clinical work, teaching and research.

Soundly Staff
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Key Takeaways:

  • Migraines can include headaches but may also include visual disturbances, dizziness, and other neurological symptoms during an episode.
  • Migraineurs are more likely to experience tinnitus.
  • Monitoring for triggers can help with managing migraine symptoms.
  • Medication is another option to help migraineurs prevent or find relief from migraine episodes.

Tinnitus and migraines occur together more frequently than you might expect. 

As an audiologist with experience working in neurotology clinics, I have worked with many patients who experience hearing loss and tinnitus. In this article, I will discuss the link between migraines and tinnitus and how to find relief.

Migraine: More Than Just A Headache

First, let's talk about migraines. While most people think of a headache when they hear "migraine," migraineurs may experience other sympt oms along with headache. A migraine is not necessarily a headache but rather a cluster of neurological symptoms, commonly involving headache but also migraine aura (typically visual disturbances that precede more intense migraine symptoms, such as headache, sensitivity to light and sound, or nausea). 

Some people with migraines may experience visual disturbances (e.g., lights, zigzag lines), changes in hearing, dizziness, tinnitus, light, and sound sensitivity, or other neurological symptoms before an oncoming neurological event, such as a headache. Migraine headaches are a type of headache that is characterized by severe and throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head. They can be incredibly debilitating and significantly impact a person's quality of life.

Migraineurs experience tinnitus more often

Migraineurs Are More Likely To Experience Tinnitus

Now, let's talk about tinnitus. Tinnitus is characterized by the perception of ringing, buzzing, or other sounds in the ears or head not caused by an external source. While tinnitus can be caused by various factors, including exposure to loud noise, head injuries, and age-related hearing loss, migraines can also trigger tinnitus. 

Studies have shown that migraineurs are more likely to experience tinnitus than those who do not suffer from migraines. Otologic migraine, a migraine variant that impacts auditory perception, may be to blame for tinnitus. One study from the NIH examined a group of participants who experience both tinnitus and headaches. They found that among those surveyed, it was most common that headache preceded tinnitus onset. And tinnitus severity was much more intense for those who had headaches before their tinnitus started. 

Why are migraines and tinnitus linked? And why might tinnitus severity be worse for those who experience headache first? The exact mechanism behind this connection has yet to be entirely understood. However, today, one theory about this phenomenon suggests that waves of activity originate from excitable cells in the brain, triggering a cascade of chemical reactions from neurotransmitters and other hormones. 

During a migraine attack, changes in blood flow and neurotransmitter levels trigger neurological effects that include visual disturbances, light sensitivity, and other symptoms. Think of it this way: the brain, as the control unit, detects a large reaction to a trigger. The electrical unit (neural communication) starts misfiring, and that unusual electrical activity causes changes in bloodflow back to the brain. This feedback loop changes the way nerves respond, and before you know it, you start experiencing sensitivity to light and sound, ringing in the ears, or other uncomfortable sensations. 

Central sensitization is another mechanism that could explain tinnitus in migraineurs. The level of reactivity in the nervous system during a migraine is amped up, and nerve fibers may recruit other nerve fibers, causing sensitivity to input from all senses. This heightened sensitivity of the nervous system can result in an exaggerated experience of tinnitus.

How To Find Relief

If you suffer from migraines and tinnitus, you can take steps to find relief. Firstly, it's essential to manage your migraines. You'll want to work with your physician or a specialist, such as a neurologist, regarding medical management.


Medical Management of Migraine

If you experience both migraines and tinnitus, it is essential to talk to a doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor may recommend medications or other treatment options to control your migraine attacks and reduce severity. 

Some medications are used to help reduce the onset of migraines, while other medications are to stop a migraine after it has started. Your doctor will recommend the best option for your situation.

Identifying Your Triggers

Often, migraineurs discover their triggers by maintaining a comprehensive migraine journal. This effective tool can help you identify patterns and specific factors that instigate your migraines. 

The journal should ideally cover food and drinks consumed, sleep patterns, weather changes, stress levels, and any other potential triggers. Over time, you may start noticing a pattern, giving you a better understanding of what precipitates your migraines. 

Once you know your triggers, you can actively avoid them to manage your migraines and alleviate the tinnitus that accompanies them.

Managing Stress

Stress is a common trigger for many migraineurs and can also exacerbate tinnitus. Therefore, managing stress is critical to ensuring well-being and reducing both the frequency and severity of migraines. 

Implementing a routine that includes stress-reducing activities can be beneficial. These activities consist of mindfulness exercises such as meditation or yoga, which have been shown to decrease stress levels and promote calm. Regular physical exercise can also effectively reduce stress and boost overall health.

Balance in your daily life is also crucial. Make time for relaxation and recreation alongside work and other responsibilities. Positive social interactions and hobbies that you enjoy can contribute significantly to stress management. Ensuring a good night's sleep, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining hydration are also essential for stress management and overall health.

Finally, consider seeking professional help if you are struggling with stress management. A psychologist or therapist can provide you with strategies and techniques for managing stress more effectively. Remember, it's okay to ask for help. Everyone experiences stress, but you don't have to manage it alone.

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Tinnitus-oriented Treatment Options

Additionally, there are specific treatments that can help manage tinnitus. These include cognitive-behavioral therapy, sound therapy, and even acupuncture. Some people also find relief from using hearing aids or white noise machines to mask the tinnitus sound. Talk to your doctor about available treatments and which might work best for you.

Overall, if you experience migraines and tinnitus, it's essential to talk to a doctor about treatment options that can help. Working with a healthcare provider is the best way to relieve your symptoms. With medical management of migraines and well-rounded stress management strategies, you can reduce both the frequency and severity of your migraines and lessen the accompanying tinnitus. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, the complex relationship between migraines and tinnitus is a field that requires further exploration. Nevertheless, whether you are a sufferer of migraines, tinnitus, or both, recognizing that these conditions share common triggers can be the first step toward effective management. 

The proper treatment plan tailored to your needs can alleviate the symptoms and significantly improve your quality of life. A balanced lifestyle, stress management, and medical intervention can all be critical in this process. Always remember that you are not alone in this journey and that professional help is available to guide you toward relief from migraines and tinnitus.

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