Hypersensitivity to sound — a condition that is also known by the name hyperacusis, is something people experience when their ears become unusually sensitive to loud noises. It is a rare condition, and affects about one in every 50,000 patients.
Hypersensitivity to sound is often accompanied by a condition called tinnitus, when patients hear noises (buzzing, ringing, whooshing) that no one else can hear.
Treatment for hyperacusis varies depending on the cause, but hearing aids are one of the commonly prescribed treatments for people suffering from hypersensitivity to sound. This may sound counterintuitive to some, but it makes sense once you start to understand hyperacusis, its’ cause, and the other conditions that can accompany this condition.
Hypersensitivity to sound is a noise sensitivity disorder. It can come on suddenly or may develop gradually. People with hyperacusis find normal noises, like the sound of a vacuum cleaner or the clanking of dishes in the sink, to be so loud that they are uncomfortable. Other people in the room may not notice these noises or pay attention to them because, for a person with normal hearing, these noises are not considered too loud. Often both ears are affected, but some people only experience this problem in one ear.
Symptoms of hypersensitivity to sound vary, depending on the cause and the severity of the condition. Common symptoms include:
Some people with this condition can even develop a severe fear of loud noises, called phonophobia. For those who are affected, phonophobia can be disabling because loud noises are found everywhere in the environment: outside, inside, workplaces and in public places. People with phonophobia sometimes become afraid to engage with others. They may also become housebound, because only at their home can they be assured that they will not be exposed to loud noises.
There are many things that can cause hyperacusis. Loud noises that damage the inner ear are one of the most common causes. Head trauma, medications, exposure to loud noises over a long period, temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder, head injury from airbag deployment – all can cause hyperacusis. Even the stress from a major life event can be a cause. Some people experience hypersensitivity to sound because of other conditions that put them at risk for hyperacusis, like autism, Bell’s palsy and Lyme disease.
There are no audiological tests designed to detect hyperacusis specifically. However, when a patient comes to their physician with symptoms, many doctors will start by assessing their patient’s audiological health with a hearing test.
Damage to the inner ear is permanent, so patients who experience hypersensitivity to sound because of damage to the inner ear may have to live with this problem for the rest of their life. However, there are treatments that can help patients learn to live with the condition without sacrificing quality of life.
Sleeping can be difficult when noises around you sound extra loud. Sleep aid medication can help you fall asleep in the early days of your diagnosis before you’ve learned to live with uncomfortably loud noises.
Sound therapy can help you learn to tolerate loud noises, though sound therapy cannot make noises seem less loud. This type of therapy helps you learn to live with loud sounds.
Phonophobia can be a real problem for some people. Going to counseling can help some people learn to live with their condition without developing a debilitating fear of loud noises.
PPE when around loud noise
Wearing ear protection can help you protect your ears from further damage, which could prevent your condition from getting worse. However, it is important to note that use of hearing protection when you are not around loud noise can actually make your hypersensitivity worse.
By teaching the people who live in your household to use a soft voice and avoid making loud noises, you can regain some comfort in the spaces where you frequently spend time.
Some people with hyperacusis are afraid to use hearing aids out of fear or concern that the hearing aid will raise noises in the room to a level that is uncomfortable. This is an understandable concern, but hearing aids are incredibly sensitive devices that are easily customized to the needs of the wearer. By controlling the volume and adjusting the hearing aid to your needs, you can control your comfort levels throughout the day.
Hearing aids can even be helpful during sound therapy treatments. By gradually increasing the volume on the hearing aid, patients can increase their tolerance for noises.
For those with hyperacusis and tinnitus, wearing a hearing aid can help elevate softer sounds to a noise level above the tinnitus.
For people who suffer from hyperacusis and who do not have tinnitus, hearing aids can be used for a different purpose. Special hearing aids that act as personal white-noise makers can prevent sharp, loud noises from being so jarring. Known as “noise generator” hearing aids, these medical devices simply raise the base-line level of noise that patients hear throughout the day, thus diminishing unpleasant sounds.
Every patient is different. Whether you need hearing aids or not depends on your diagnosis, the severity of your condition and any other conditions you might have. Your audiologist can help you decide whether you need a hearing aid and if so, what kind.
Likely, a hearing aid will not be the only treatment for your hyperacusis. Talk to your physician about sound therapy, counseling and other treatments to help with your condition. Working with a trained professional and following the recommendations of your doctor can help you manage your condition and maintain a good quality of life.