Think about the last time you were too close to a concert stage, and your ears hurt just a little bit. Even if you were having fun, weren’t you also just a little grateful when the loud noises ended? Now imagine what it would be like if almost every noise you ever heard was uncomfortably loud. This is what it is like for someone suffering from noise sensitivity disorder. This rare but problematic disease can be disruptive to anyone who experiences it. Unmanaged, noise sensitivity disorder can cause and reduce quality of life. If you or someone you love is diagnosed with noise sensitivity disorder, knowing more about the condition and seeking audiology services can help you live more comfortably with the condition.
Noise sensitivity disorder, also known as decreased sound tolerance (DST), loudness intolerance or hyperacusis, is a condition that occurs when noises seem louder and more disruptive than they should. In fact, the actual meaning of the word hyperacusis is “excess hearing.”
It’s a common belief that people affected by this condition find loud noises to be too uncomfortable, but this is not quite accurate. People who suffer from hyperacusis often find noises set at a normally comfortable volume to be so loud that they’re uncomfortable. Car engine noises, plates being stacked and cleared from a table, dog barking and even soft noises like paper rustling can become unbearable for a person suffering from this condition.
Often, hyperacusis is caused by damage to the ear or head. Surgery, head trauma and exposure to loud noise are all common causes of hyperacusis. Sometimes it comes on quickly after a single event. Other times, hyperacusis comes on slowly and due to years of exposure to loud noises, frequent head injuries, or due to a combination of many disparate events. Ear damage from toxins or medication, and even airbag deployment can be a cause of noise sensitivity disorder.
Other conditions that can correlate with noise sensitivity disorder include:
- Bell’s palsy
- Posttraumatic stress disorder
- Lyme disease
The most obvious symptom of hyperacusis is a lack of tolerance for everyday sounds. Very quiet noises may be comfortable, relatively quiet sounds may be tolerable, and sounds that are comfortable for most people are uncomfortable for people with hyperacusis. Even the sound of your own voice may be uncomfortable, if you’re suffering from this condition. Other symptoms include:
- Loud sounds cause the ears to pop.
- Low intensity sounds are uncomfortable.
- Loud noises may be distorted.
Many people with hyperacusis also develop phonophobia, or fear of loud noises. Phonophobia is a serious condition because it can stop people from performing their everyday tasks. Fear of noise can lead to other fears, like social phobias and fear of going outside. People who are afraid of exposing themselves to loud noises may avoid social situations, limit what they’re willing to do professionally, and stay indoors or on their own property, where they can control which sounds they’re exposed to. In severe cases, hyperacusis can affect relationships and may lead to difficulties at home.
Hyperacusis is typically diagnosed by an audiologist. Although there is not a specific test to diagnose this particular condition, a standard hearing test with some additional measures can help the audiologist assess the audiological health of the patient. Hearing tests can give doctors an idea of how sensitive their patient’s hearing is and determine the patient’s uncomfortable loudness levels (UCL). This can help the audiologist determine when audiology services are needed.
How Noise Sensitivity Disorder Compares to Other Hearing Issues
There are multiple types of noise sensitivity disorders. Other types of noise sensitivity conditions include:
- Misophonia. Misophonia is a dislike of loud noises. People suffering from misophonia often experience rage when they hear loud noises.
- Recruitment. Recruitment is a condition that occurs when sounds at normal frequencies are imperceptible, and then when the sounds become louder, they are far too loud.
- Hypersensitive hearing. Hyper sensitive hearing is a sensitivity to noises at a certain frequency, combined with a tolerance of most noises at normal frequencies.
These conditions can seem similar and are sometimes mixed up, but each condition is different from hyperacusis.
Treatment for Noise Sensitivity Disorder
Noise sensitivity disorder is not curable, if it occurs because of damage to the ear. However, people who experience this condition can be desensitized to sound and can learn to react less to noise. Audiology services from a specialist are necessary to make this happen.
Desensitization/sound therapy is a type of therapy that involves exposure to sounds of increasing volume. This type of therapy does not decrease the perceived loudness of the sounds, but does decrease sensitivity to sounds.
As already mentioned, noise sensitivity disorder can cause problems in personal relationships. People who suffer from noise sensitivity can become frustrated, agitated, depressed and even isolated from others. Seeing a therapist can help patients manage emotions in healthy ways, to avoid the breakdown of personal relationships.
Many people who suffer from noise sensitivity need help learning to manage their environment to be comfortable. Learning how to ask coworkers and people at home to control the volume at which they speak, for example, is one way to avoid discomfort in personal and professional spaces. It helps to work with an audiologist and even a therapist to learn the tricks that can help control noises in the environment.
Many people suffering from noise sensitivity disorder also have other hearing disorders due to damage to their ear. Hearing aids can help alleviate hearing problems, and manage conditions like tinnitus. Fortunately, hearing aids can be adjusted to filter noises and prevent them from exceeding a certain volume. Patients in need of a hearing aid should seek audiology services from a health professional.
Noise Generator Hearing Aids
Noise generator hearing aids help dull noises by generating a subtle white noise that plays constantly in the background. For someone with noise sensitivity disorder, noise generator hearing aids make noises seem slightly less jarring and slightly more acceptable.
Sensitive to Loud Noises? Get Diagnosis and Treatment
Hyperacusis can be a debilitating condition if it’s left unmanaged. Early detection and early treatment is important. Because this condition can significantly impact quality of life, the faster you can work with your audiologist to decrease your sensitivity and identify strategies to manage your condition, the better. Work with your audiologist to get diagnosed, receive audiology services, identify a good hearing aid for your condition and connect with a professional who can administer sound desensitization therapy.