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Hyperacusis: Excessive sound sensitivity

What is Hyperacusis? Noise sensitivity causes, symptoms and treatment

We define Hyperacusis as a rare hearing disorder that affects individuals’ sensitivity to sound in their environment. This noise sensitivity disorder causes people to hear sounds at a constant, perceived loud volume, regardless of the actual volume or any changes in frequency or decibels. 

Hyperacusis causes: Why do you get overwhelmed by noise?

Normal, everyday sounds such as pages turning in a book, people talking or whistling can all sound uncomfortably loud for those who endure Hyperacusis. There are many contributing factors and conditions that have been researched as potential causes of Hyperacusis. From that research, various hypotheses have evolved regarding what causes Hyperacusis, giving hearing care professionals a number of factors to consider as they evaluate and treat patients. 

Nerve damage is one possible cause of Hyperacusis—but there are almost countless different nerves among the body’s complex and interconnected system. So which nerve damage causes Hyperacusis? One possibility is damage to the auditory nerve system, the pathways that carry soundwaves to the brain for processing. Another possibility is nerve damage linked to TMJ disorders. In examining whether TMJ can cause Hyperacusis, the fact that the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) sits very close to the facial nerve (cranial nerve VII) is important. If there is a disorder in the joint, it can easily touch—and damage—that nerve. Damage to either of these nerves can interfere with the way that sound is carried to and processed in the brain, potentially affecting how a person perceives volume.

Another question that frequently comes up among sufferers is “can anxiety cause Hyperacusis?” While there’s not a definitive link, it’s worth noting that both anxiety and stress are closely associated with TMJ disorders, so there’s a possibility that both of those mental health conditions could contribute to it, although not cause it directly.

Some other factors and causes of Hyperacusis in adults are either long-term exposure to loud noise or sudden exposure to very loud noises, both of which can damage the delicate structure of the inner ear that sends messages through the nerves to the brain. The first can be seen in people who regularly listen to music at high volumes and those who work in consistently noisy jobs like construction. Damage from sudden exposure to loud noises could come from things like gunshots, explosions or fireworks.

Other conditions that may cause Hyperacusis include:

  • Ototoxic medications
  • Lyme disease
  • Viral infections
  • Ear infections 
  • Head injuries
  • Bell’s palsy
  • Superior canal dehiscence syndrome (SCDS)
  • Williams syndrome
  • Over use of Aspirin
  • Medications
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Hyperacusis or hearing loss?

Do you feel a particular sensitivity to some sounds but are not sure if it is related to hyperacusis or hearing loss? Take a free hearing test at a Miracle-Ear Center to find out!

Main symptoms of hyperacusis

The symptoms of hyperacusis may develop suddenly or gradually, but the key indication is that regular sounds will seem distorted or too loud. With hyperacusis, early symptoms can be as simple as the hum of a refrigerator seeming distractingly loud, and while some sounds might still seem comfortable, others can feel completely overbearing. People with  this condition even have difficulty tolerating the sound or volume of their own voice when they talk.

Those who are experiencing cochlear hyperacusis symptoms will likely have ear pain or irritation and feel bothered by various seemingly normal noises. If you have vestibular hyperacusis, being exposed to loud noises can make you lose your balance and leave you feeling out of control of your posture. Many people with this type of hyperacusis might experience vertigo, nausea, or even a loss of consciousness. Both cochlear and vestibular hyperacusis can cause corresponding symptoms such as severe ear pain and headaches.

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Treatment for Hyperacusis

Treating this condition is unique to each person’s needs. While there is no standardized Hyperacusis treatment, solutions are often centered on developing patients’ coping skills. The process of determining how to treat Hyperacusis starts with individualized evaluation to determine the specifics of a person’s symptoms and how the condition is affecting their life. With that information, a hearing care professional can help create a plan of action. 

Sound therapy is a popular form of treatment for Hyperacusis. Using controlled exposure to sound, it paves the way for individuals to learn valuable skills for managing their Hyperacusis symptoms. The therapy starts at a volume level that is comfortable for the patient and then slowly exposes them to louder sounds until they feel comfortable listening to a wider range. Typically, over the course of a few weeks, individuals gradually manage to tolerate increased sound intensity. 

Other forms of therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT). CBT is a form of psychological treatment that can be useful in addressing the stress and anxiety associated with Hyperacusis. It uses techniques and tools that help patients overcome the feelings that arise with exposure to sounds outside of their comfort range. On the other hand, TRT, centered on tinnitus, can have knock-on effects of helping Hyperacusis with the use of sound that overshadows and distracts from the noises that cause problems for the patient. Hyperacusis treatment protocol will look different for each patient as hearing care professionals find the best option for each individual and their hearing journey. 

The first thing to remember about home remedies is that safe treatment always starts with discussing your issues with a professional. They can then recommend ways to incorporate therapies at home. Sound machines, widely available for purchase online or at general retailers, are one option for those who wish to try Hyperacusis treatment at home. 

For some people, there’s relief to be found in Hyperacusis home remedies that incorporate exercises—both physical and mental—that promote mindfulness, such as yoga and meditation. These can help alleviate stress, encourage relaxation and provide an opportunity for people to feel in control of their condition. 

While there’s no specially designed Hyperacusis hearing aid, the good news is that standard hearing aids—in all their shapes and sizes—can help to provide relief. So how can you use hearing aids for Hyperacusis? Working closely with a hearing care professional, you can get an accurate assessment of your hearing and how Hyperacusis is affecting your lifestyle. That information will help your HCP determine the best hearing aid for Hyperacusis in your unique case.

Among the various types and styles of hearing aids, many can be specifically programmed to address your concerns. In the case of Hyperacusis, creating special pre-programmed settings can help rebalance the way that you hear sounds—raising the levels of some softer sounds to help equalize your perception of what you’re hearing.

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How can you cope with sensitivity to sound?

As mentioned, sound machines can help in mitigating the effects of Hyperacusis—but there are different types of sounds to consider. For those with Hyperacusis, pink noise treatment can be particularly helpful. Pink noise is low frequency, and is similar to the sound of continuous light rain or wind. It can give the brain something else—a calming sound—to focus on and give Hyperacusis sufferers a sense of relaxation through its predictability and constancy. On the other hand, white noise Hyperacusis treatments are slightly different, because they utilize a mix of frequencies to create a more static-like sound.

Sound machines that play pink noise or white noise can be left on during the night or day to provide ongoing relief. If you’re on the go or in a place where you can’t use a sound machine, headphones are a portable aid. With increasingly effective technology, noise-canceling headphones can make a major difference.

The good news is that you don’t need to look for specialized Hyperacusis noise-canceling headphones—almost all of the ones made by reputable brands and found at online and brick-and-mortar retailers are effective. These headphones have the capacity to cancel out the noise that affects people with Hyperacusis, helping them find peace throughout their everyday activities. As with any headphones, though, be cautious about turning them up too loud to avoid further damage to your ears. 

For people who are dealing with this sometimes annoying condition, it’s only natural to ask if there is a cure for Hyperacusis.  But a Hyperacusis cure is not a certain thing. As scientists continue to research the origins of and how to cure Hyperacusis, the best option for those who have the condition is to turn to solutions to mitigate it.

Through sound therapy and other treatments, there are ways to manage sound perceptions and learn to live with the disorder. To find the best path for you, speak with your hearing care professional.

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Hyperacusis in children

Children who experience Hyperacusis might have no better way to explain it or tell you about it than frequent crying or screaming, along with touching or holding their ears. It can be a heart-rending experience for parents to see their child in unexplained distress, so seeking the help of a professional—who can make assessments through interviews, observations or even neurological assessments—is advisable.

Similar to adults, children can find relief from their Hyperacusis through sound therapy, tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT), medication, or neuro-rehabilitation. Researchers have estimated that the incidence of Hyperacusis in children is around 3.2% to 17.1%, compared to between 8% to 15.2% in adults.

Stress, anxiety and other social consequences of Hyperacusis

Because of its overwhelming and often constant nature, it’s not uncommon for individuals to experience Hyperacusis and anxiety in combination. Hyperacusis, anxiety and depression can develop when people isolate themselves to avoid harsh noises that trigger their Hyperacusis stress. It’s not uncommon for relationship issues to develop due to the lack of social interaction available for those who suffer with the condition.

Although everyday activities such as going to work or running errands can be affected by Hyperacusis, working with a hearing care professional to find tools to manage your Hyperacusis anxiety can help you avoid isolation. 

Seeing a hearing care professional (HCP) is the only definitive way to get a Hyperacusis diagnosis. The HCP will first look over your previous medical history to identify potential risk factors, behavioral issues, lifestyle factors or known damage to your hearing. An exam will follow to determine if there are structural issues within the ear that could be a sign of Hyperacusis. HCPs will also perform an array of tests to accurately assess whether you have hearing damage and get a full picture of overall hearing health.

These baseline steps will also help your HCP determine whether you need more complex testing or specialized physical examinations.

The nature of Hyperacusis—and the way it makes people feel about their perception and senses—can lead to asking “Is Hyperacusis a mental illness?” However, it is not. It is a hearing disorder, but one that can lead to or be associated with anxiety and depression because of the effects it has on people’s lives. Those who have it often feel the need to isolate themselves in order to find peace from the paralyzing effect of loud sounds.

Speaking with a hearing care professional will open more opportunities to find what is triggering your sensitivity and what therapies will be the best fit for you. As for whether Hyperacusis is a disability, both Hyperacusis and tinnitus meet the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition for having a disability, but neither currently has legal protection under the ADA.

Tinnitus is not a disease but an increasing problem for over 50 million people in the United States. It affects individuals by consistently filling a person’s head with noise, such as the sounds of clicking, ringing, whistling, or even roaring. Some might experience tinnitus in the background of their everyday life. The sounds may come off as small and soft, making them unnoticeable throughout the day. However, the sounds may also be so overpowering that it blocks out any other sound a person may be hearing.

So, can Hyperacusis cause tinnitus? If you suffer from Hyperacusis, there is a chance you could have tinnitus, however it is not a cause.

The difference between tinnitus and Hyperacusis is that tinnitus will cause auditory sensations in the absence of external sounds, whereas Hyperacusis is triggered by external sounds and makes them seem louder than what they are. If you are living with tinnitus and Hyperacusis, or think you might be suffering from the symptoms, contact a hearing care professional at your neighborhood Miracle-Ear. They can help you finding your personalized plan for managing your condition and find relief. 

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