What is hyperacusis?
Hyperacusis is classified by a consistent exaggerated response to sounds that are not uncomfortable to the typical person. An individual with hyperacusis often has normal hearing and is disturbed by even low or moderate sounds. Hyperacusis is a symptom of an underlying condition of the auditory system, and not a disorder itself. It is also not uncommon for people with hyperacusis to suffer from tinnitus (ringing, buzzing, hissing, etc.) as well.
People with hyperacusis often avoid situations where sounds that are “too loud” might occur. They also cover their ears and cringe at the exposure of sounds that are perceived to be of a comfortable volume by other people. In more extreme cases, an individual with hyperacusis may wear earplugs or noise cancelling headphones regularly to protect themselves from sounds in their environment.
Although the exact cause of hyperacusis is unknown, in some instances it can be associated with noise induced hearing loss, acoustic trauma, Meniere’s Disease, headaches, depression, Lyme Disease, etc. When diagnosing hyperacusis an ENT will complete a thorough examination to rule out underlying disease such as a neurological or hormonal condition.
It is important to note that hyperacusis is not simply sensitivity to loud sound. It is classified as hypersensitivity to sounds that others would find comfortable. There are several other auditory phenomena that are often mistaken for hyperacusis.
Misophonia – extreme dislike of a sound (i.e. chewing).
Phonophobia – fear of a particular sound (i.e. thunder).
Recruitment – abnormal loudness perception due to hearing loss
It’s necessary for people who suspect they have hyperacusis to talk to their doctor about their concerns. Often, their sensitivity to loud sounds could be a symptom of a medical condition, or a different loudness perception issue (i.e. recruitment).
Treatment for hyperacusis is uniquely tailored to each individual with extreme sensitivity to sound. For people who have both tinnitus and hyperacusis, traditional tinnitus management programs are effective at treating both symptoms. Tinnitus management distracts the brain from the ringing, while also helping the individual get used to soft to moderate sounds (habituation).
The key to treating hyperacusis is to continue exposing the individual to sound. Even though people with sound sensitivity often feel the urge to avoid places that may have loud sound or wear earplugs to block out sound completely, it is important they expose themselves to at least moderate levels of sound. If the individual changes their lifestyle to actively avoid sound at all cost, their hyperacusis may become worse. By depriving the brain of sound, the person will have a stronger response to moderate to loud sound then they would if they gently introduced themselves to varying levels of sound regularly. Although consistently wearing earplugs on a daily basis is not recommended, it can be helpful to have a set of earplugs to wear at events with very loud sound, such as concerts.
Hyperacusis is also treated by identifying the underlying cause of the symptom. Occasionally, if there is a medical condition causing the symptom, the hyperacusis may be relieved once that condition is treated effectively.
In some cases, people with hyperacusis may have a strong emotional reaction to sound. In those instances, a physician may recommend a consultation with a counselor or psychologist to address the stress and poor quality of life that can be associated with severe cases of hyperacusis.
When to see a professional
If you feel you have extreme sensitivity to even soft or moderate sounds, that are reportedly comfortable to others around you, you should consider consulting with your primary care physician or ENT. It is important to talk with your doctor if you are having any other symptoms, especially relating to the ear (i.e. hearing loss, tinnitus, pain, pressure, dizziness, etc).
To learn more, please call to schedule an appointment at 616-994-2770. A front office staff member will set you up with a hearing test and a consultation with one of our ENTs