What's the Link Between Migraines and Tinnitus?

Understanding Central Sensitization

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Do you suffer from migraines and tinnitus—a ringing, buzzing, or whistling sound in your ears? If so, you are not alone. Scientific research suggests a potential connection between migraines and tinnitus.

In a 2016 study in Headache, a link was found between tinnitus and migraines in over 1,600 French students with migraines. This means that study participants with migraines were more likely to also have tinnitus than study participants without a history of headaches.

This link between tinnitus and migraines was stronger for those who suffered from migraine with aura than from migraine without aura

Another older and similarly large study (but of elderly people) recognized migraine as a risk factor for developing tinnitus. Other risk factors for developing tinnitus included poor hearing, a history of work-related noise exposure, and a history of ear or sinus infections. 

What Is Tinnitus?

You may be surprised to learn that ear ringing or buzzing is a common problem, affecting about 10 percent of the population. You may also be surprised to learn that tinnitus is not a medical disease. Rather, it is a symptom of another underlying health problem. In fact, about 200 distinct health conditions can cause tinnitus, according to the American Tinnitus Association. Some common ones include:

  • age or noise-related hearing loss 
  • excessive ear wax
  • head and neck trauma

Due to the complexity surrounding tinnitus—it has so many potential causes—it's important to not self-diagnosis, but to instead see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

 While not common, there are some serious causes of a combined headache with tinnitus like carotid artery dissection or a traumatic brain injury. 

More on Tinnitus

Tinnitus, like any symptom, can affect people in different ways. For some, it can be a mild annoyance, while for others it can be quite debilitating and contribute to social isolation, increased stress levels, and anxiety. 

The good news is that your tinnitus can be effectively treated. Sometimes treatment is simple, like stopping a medication or alleviating congestion from a sinus infection. For more chronic and persistent tinnitus, though, a combination of medication and other therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy or sound therapy are often used. 

Know that your treatment strategy will ultimately depend on your unique tinnitus case, so what works for a friend or a loved one may not be right for you. 

The Link Between Migraines and Tinnitus

You may be wondering how your tinnitus (an ear problem) relates to your migraines (a brain problem)?

 One 2015 study in Biomedical Research sought to further understand this relationship. In this study of nearly 100 participants with tinnitus and migraines, a significant association was found between tinnitus and headache laterality—meaning a person with tinnitus in the right ear tended to also have their head pain on the right side, and the same went for the left side. 

In addition, the severity of tinnitus and headache coincided in about half of the participants. So when their headache became more severe, their tinnitus did too and vice versa. 

As suggested by the authors of the study, central sensitization may explain the tinnitus-migraine link. Central sensitization occurs when your brain and spinal cord develop a heightened sensitivity to both things that should hurt (a needle prick), and things that should not hurt (a regular touch).

Central Sensitization in Migraines and Tinnitus

In migraines, scientists believe that pain fibers that originate from the trigeminal nerve (the largest cranial nerve) release inflammatory peptides like substance P and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP). These peptides, along with widening of blood vessels that surround the brain, cause the headache part of a migraine (the throbbing pain). 

After repeated migraine attacks, central sensitization may occur, which may be the trigger for the development of tinnitus. On the other hand, it could be that tinnitus in one ear sensitizes the trigeminal nerve system resulting in migraines on that same side of the head.

It's hard to know, although research shows that headaches tend to precede tinnitus, so the former may be more plausible. Or there could be a total different factor (that we don't know about yet) that is triggering both the migraines and tinnitus.

Experts aren't sure yet how this works. Regardless, research suggests the combined occurrence of head pain and ear ringing likely has a biological basis—in other words, it's not just a coincidence. 

What the Link Means for You

If you have tinnitus and migraines, science suggests a link, possibly central sensitization. What this means for you is hard to say, other than treating one may help the other, especially if the therapy targets the shared mechanism of how your migraine and tinnitus developed in the first place. 

Research also shows that having a headache disorder, like migraine, can play a big role in how tinnitus impairs your quality of life. So even if treating your migraines does not lessen the physical burden of your tinnitus, it may lessen the psychological toll it takes on your everyday functioning. 

Sources:

American Tinnitus Association. Understanding the Facts: Causes. 

Bernstein C, Burstein R. Sensitization of the trigeminovascular pathway: Perspective and implications to migraine pathophysiology. J Clin Neurol. 2012; 8(2):89-99.

Guichard E, Montagni I, Tzourion C, Kurth T. Association between headaches and tinnitus in young adults: Cross-sectional study. Headache. 2016; 56(6):987-94.

Langguth B et al. Tinnitus and headache. Biomed Res Int. 2015; 2015:797416. 

Sindhusake D, Golding M, Newall P, Rubin G, Jakobsen K, Mitchell P. Risk factors for tinnitus in a population of older adults: the blue mountains hearing study. Ear Hear. 2003; 24(6):501-7. 

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