Hearing Loss & Fatigue 

Have you ever felt especially tired after a long conversation with friends or after a work meeting? This can point to listening fatigue which describes feeling tired after absorbing and processing sound for long periods of time. Listening fatigue is a way for the brain to signal being overworked and needing a break. Though everyone can and does experience listening fatigue, it can be especially common for people with hearing loss. Living with impaired hearing requires the brain to work extra hard to hear and understand speech and sound. So listening fatigue can be experienced more often and can feel exhausting. There are several strategies you can practice to alleviate fatigue and support your hearing health. 

Understanding How we Hear

To understand the relationship between hearing loss and fatigue, it is useful to know more about how we hear and process sound. Though hearing may seem like such an automatic and easy thing we do, it actually involves a complex process. The auditory system is the sensory system for hearing. It involves the ears and brain which work together to absorb, process, and understand speech and sound. This process includes: 

  • Outer ear: the outer portion of the ear absorbs soundwaves from the environment which travel through the ear canal and land on the eardrum. 
  • Middle ear: the movement of the eardrum triggers the ossicles which are three tiny bones that are connected and help propel soundwaves into the inner ear.
  • Inner ear: sensory cells in the cochlea convert incoming soundwaves into electrical signals which then get carried to the brain. 

The brain continues processing these signals which includes assigning meaning to them, allowing us to understand what we hear. 

Link Between Hearing Loss & Fatigue

Hearing loss can contribute to fatigue in several ways. Hearing loss most often occurs when sensory cells in the inner ear are damaged. This can be caused by a range of factors including exposure to loud noise, aging, and head injuries. Damaged sensory cells means they have less capacity to process incoming soundwaves effectively. The brain receives less auditory information and this can contribute to fatigue in the following ways: 

  • Brain atrophy: the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing speech as well as sound can shrink as a result of inactivity (receiving less auditory input to process). This can lead to a loss of neurons and restructuring of neural networks. 
  • Cognitive overload: as a result of receiving less auditory information, the brain works harder to search for and process auditory signals. Other areas of the brain can intervene to compensate for hearing loss. This overworks the brain and uses more energy which can lead to cognitive overload. 

These effects make it more challenging to hear. The brain has to work harder to hear and navigate speech as well as sound. This can be exhausting and produce listening fatigue more quickly. 

Tips to Alleviate Fatigue 

There are several strategies you can practice to alleviate listening fatigue. This includes the following: 

  • Reduce background noise: background noise can make it tougher to hear for anyone and can be especially challenging for people with hearing loss. Reduce background noise as much as possible by maintaining low volume settings on music or the TV, close windows to limit environmental noise, avoid settings with excessive amounts of background noise etc. 
  • Take listening breaks: take 5-10 minute listening breaks throughout the day. This gives your ears and brain a break from constantly absorbing and processing sound. Taking breaks provides time and space to rest and recuperate. 
  • Reduce noise exposure: we are exposed to varying levels of noise everyday. This can be taxing on your auditory system so reduce your exposure as much as possible. You can do this by:
    • maintaining low volume settings on electronic devices including your phone, TV, speaker etc. 
    • wearing hearing protection – this includes items like earbuds, headphones, earmuffs etc. This provides the ears with a physical barrier, reducing the amount of sound you absorb. 
    • Choose quieter settings when going out rather than high trafficked places. 
  • Take a nap: if you experience listening fatigue, take a 30 minute nap to boost your energy. 

Contact us to learn more about fatigue and the services and resources that are available to support your hearing health and wellness.