Hearing Loss & Fatigue

Hearing Loss & Fatigue

In Hearing Health, Hearing Loss by Jennifer Douberly, Au.D.

Have you ever felt especially tired after a long work meeting or conversation with friends? How about after listening to music or a podcast for some time? You have likely experienced listening fatigue before which describes feeling tired after listening to speech or sounds for an extended period of time. It is common to experience listening fatigue which is a signal from the brain that it needs a break from constantly absorbing and processing sound. Listening fatigue can be especially common for people with hearing loss who already experience greater challenges with hearing. Learning how you can best alleviate listening fatigue can boost your energy and overall wellness. 

Understanding How We Hear

To better understand the link between hearing loss and listening fatigue, it is helpful to know more about the auditory system which is the sensory system for hearing. This involves the ears and brain which work together to absorb and process speech as well as sound. A complex process that includes the following: 

  • Outer ear: the outer, most visible part of the ear absorbs sound waves from the environment and funnels this sound through the ear canal and to the eardrum. 
  • Middle ear: movement of the eardrum activates the ossicles which are three tiny bones that are connected. The ossicles help push the soundwaves further into the inner ear. 
  • Inner ear: the cochlea is filled with thousands of hair cells that help convert incoming soundwaves into electrical signals. 

The auditory nerve then delivers these signals to the brain where they are further analyzed. The brain is then able to process and assign meaning to these signals which is how we can understand how we hear. 

How does hearing loss cause fatigue?

Several factors can cause hearing loss – exposure to loud noise, aging, existing medical conditions, etc. These factors most commonly impair hearing by damaging the hair cells in the inner ear. These sensory cells play a critical role in the hearing process and so when they lose sensitivity and/or die, their capacity to carry out essential functions is reduced. This disrupts the auditory information these cells send to the brain. The brain is then forced to work harder in trying to process and understand sound. This can impact the brain in a few ways: 

  • Brain atrophy: the specific areas of the brain that are responsible for processing auditory information receive less of this input causing these portions to become less active. Less stimulation and reduced functioning can cause these areas to shrink over time impacting cognitive functions. 
  • Cognitive overload: as these areas are rendered inactive, other parts of the brain can intervene and compensate. So the brain then is working harder, exerting more energy to attempt to perceive and process sound. This can produce cognitive overload and lead to fatigue. 

To put it simply, it takes more energy and effort for people with hearing loss to hear. This can more easily lead to listening fatigue. This helps us understand why people navigating hearing loss often say it is an exhausting experience. 

Tips to Manage Listening Fatigue 

There are helpful ways to navigate and manage listening fatigue, alleviating its impact on your daily life. This includes: 

  • Reduce background noise: the more noise that is present in your environment, the more sound your ears and brain have to process which makes it even harder to hear. Eliminate or reduce background noise as much as possible by turning off any audio that you are not listening to, household appliances you are not using, and avoiding noisier settings. 
  • Take listening breaks: take listening breaks throughout the day to give the auditory system a break from constantly absorbing and processing sound. This gives your ears and brain time to rest and recuperate. 
  • Take a nap: taking a short nap can also be helpful. A 30-minute nap gives you and your auditory system time to rest. This can boost your energy, ability to concentrate and navigate the rest of your day with greater ease and attention. 

In addition to these tips, be sure to get your hearing tested regularly. This helps assess any changes you may experience and ensures that your hearing aids are always meeting your hearing needs. Contact us today to learn more.