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Sudden Sensitivity to Sound

While hearing loss can be distressing, confusing, and frustrating, so can the complete opposite of it, sensitivity to sound. Sudden sensitivity to sound, otherwise known as hyperacusis, is a condition that makes it extremely hard for people to deal with everyday sounds. Certain sounds may seem unbearably loud to you, whereas they seem normal to others. Thankfully, hyperacusis is pretty rare, affecting one in every 50,000 people. Though hyperacusis is considered a hearing disorder, a lot of people who have it also have normal hearing. Many suffering from hyperacusis also tend to experience tinnitus, ringing in the ears. 

What causes hyperacusis, what are its symptoms, how does it compare to tinnitus, and how can it be treated? Read on to learn more.

Symptoms of Hyperacusis

Hyperacusis has been known to impact people’s daily lives, and of course, it affects everybody differently. Though sensitivity to sound is a hearing condition, it tends to significantly impact people’s emotions and mental health. The most common symptoms associated with hyperacusis that impact everyday life are:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Ear pain
  • Relationship problems – having trouble forming connections with others due to social isolation and avoidance

Though hyperacusis affects each person differently, there are some sounds that are more commonly reported and sound louder to those with hyperacusis, they include:

  • A car engine
  • A loud conversation
  • Running water, like a faucet
  • Typical sounds of an appliance running, like a refrigerator or dishwasher

Like most conditions, each person is impacted differently. For some, the sounds listed above are a mild inconvenience, and for others, they can be debilitating. It’s no wonder hyperacusis can lead to anxiety or isolation. If listening to normal conversations is painful, it’s only a matter of time before you begin choosing to avoid those situations to minimize the amount of pain you feel, which can be extremely difficult to handle, especially long-term.

If you think you’re experiencing hyperacusis, don’t ignore it. Prioritize your health and make an appointment with an audiologist to see what’s happening. Together, you can come up with a plan to address it. 

Hyperacusis Causes and Risk Factors 

In simple terms, you hear because your ears detect sounds as vibrations. The sound is then sent to your brain for processing, and then you hear sounds. For those experiencing hyperacusis, the brain is confusing or exaggerating the sounds, reacting abnormally to them. That is why sounds may sound normal to others, but to you, they’re loud and obtrusive. 

Hyperacusis typically develops due to other health conditions or diseases, it is not something people are born with. The most common reasons for developing hyperacusis are:

  • A head injury, like from an airbag
  • Ear damage caused by medications or toxins
  • Bell’s Palsy, a viral infection that affects your inner ear
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
  • Lyme disease
  • Tay-Sachs disease
  • Migraines
  • Regular use of valium
  • Certain kinds of epilepsy
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Meniere’s disease
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Autism
  • Jaw or face surgery
  • Williams syndrome

Of course, many of these causes are out of one’s control. But sometimes hyperacusis can be caused by things that are within your control. 

For example, some people start to experience hyperacusis after being exposed to a single loud sound, like a gunshot. This can be avoided. If you are around activities that could lead you to develop hyperacusis often, take control and have hearing protection on you at all times, foam hearing plugs work very well and are easy to carry around. Other people have developed hyperacusis after being exposed to loud sounds over a long period of time, like people who work in manufacturing. 

Can stress cause sensitivity to sound? 

We know that constant stress and anxiety can negatively impact one’s body in many ways. In fact, it is almost hard to believe how many conditions seem to be caused by stress, and sadly, hyperacusis is one of them. Emotional stress, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has been linked with hyperacusis. 

Though experts do not know for sure what causes hyperacusis, there are different theories. One is that the tiny hair cells in your inner ear, the ones responsible for hearing, rely on a constant stream of blood flow to work correctly. When the body is under extreme situations, like chronic stress, the overproduction of adrenaline reduces the blood flow, which can disturb your blood flow levels and lead to problems with hearing, be it hearing loss or hyperacusis. 

Is hyperacusis a mental illness? 

Though hyperacusis has a significant impact on one’s mental health, it is not a mental illness. Like hearing loss and tinnitus, hyperacusis is a hearing disorder. Though hyperacusis can be caused by a variety of reasons, it always works in the same way. 

Simply put, something is distorting, confusing, or changing the way the brain is reading the soundwaves coming from the tiny hair cells in your inner ear. This distortion confuses the brain and you perceive sounds as much louder than they actually are. That’s why people around you may seem fine, but to you the sounds are unbearable. 

If you believe you’re experiencing hyperacusis, go see an audiologist today. They’ll be able to perform a loudness discomfort test to learn what specific kind of sensitivity you’re experiencing.

Hyperacusis Diagnosis

Hyperacusis is a hearing condition that should be taken seriously. Just like you wouldn’t ignore a bleeding wound, you shouldn’t ignore hyperacusis, but rather get diagnosed as soon as you can. Because hyperacusis is a hearing condition, the best way to have it properly diagnosed is to see an audiologist or an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor. These specialists will be able to perform a few different tests to see exactly what is going on in your ears to try and find a solution.

Before going to your appointment, be sure to gather all the important information you need to have a successful appointment. The audiologist will ask about your medical history, so if anybody else in your family has had hyperacusis, that will be useful information to give the doctor. During the appointment you will have your ears examined, and a hearing test performed. The test will confirm whether it is hyperacusis you’re experiencing, or something else. The audiologist may also conduct a loudness discomfort test to see what kind of sound sensitivity you’re experiencing. 

With this information in hand, your audiologist will be able to see how severe the condition is, and recommend different treatment options available to you. 

Hyperacusis Treatment and Home Remedies 

Treatment for hyperacusis will change depending on the cause. The good news is, there are a variety of options out there for you to try to see which is best for you. When meeting with your audiologist and doctor, be sure to discuss all these options to see which is the right one for you.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT): With CBT, you work with a mental health professional who helps you learn how to manage your emotional response to sound. This helps with stress, which can be especially helpful whether you have stress caused by hyperacusis, or hyperacusis caused by stress.

Sound desensitization: This is a technique that is supposed to train you, over time, to increase your tolerance to sound. During this treatment, you’ll wear a device in both ears and listen to static noise for a set period of time. Over a period of around six months, your tolerance to sound should improve. 

Home Remedies: Sometimes, lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on your hyperacusis. Exercising often, yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and even massages can help. More often that not, these strategies work best to reduce the pain and stress caused by hyperacusis, it doesn’t cure the condition itself (there is no cure).

Surgery: Surgery is only considered if all the options above fail. The surgery moves the tissue located behind the ear to around the hearing bones. This is supposed to provide support to the bones, helping reduce sensitivity to sounds. 

If sounds are louder than usual and bothering you, don’t ignore it, go see an audiologist today. Like with any other condition, the sooner you get help, the better your chances of feeling better and finding relief. Your doctor will be able to help reduce sensitivity and provide guidance on how to navigate your emotions.

What is the difference between tinnitus and hyperacusis?

Both tinnitus and hyperacusis are a burden and can lead to emotional distress. They can also be experienced at different levels of severity, meaning some people are able to easily tolerate it, while others find the condition debilitating. However, while tinnitus and hyperacusis share those similarities, they are not the same thing. 

  • Tinnitus is the perception of a sound where there is no external source. 
    • People experience this sound as a ringing in the ears, buzzing, clicking, or pulsing.
    • There are different kinds of tinnitus: primary, pulsatile, secondary, and somatic.
  • Hyperacusis is the exaggerated perception of a sound created by an external source. 
    • Hyperacusis has a few different categories: loudness, annoyance, fear, and pain.

Tinnitus and hyperacusis can be experienced independently or in unison, which means some people can have both at the same time. Whether you have tinnitus or hyperacusis, your action plan should be the same: go see an audiologist. Once you’ve had your hearing tested, you’ll get guidance from the doctor on the best way to address your condition. Remember to take care of yourself, and not to give up. If one treatment plan fails, try another, you can do it!

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