What is Noise Sensitivity?
We live in a noisy world and sensitivity to loud sounds can be a common problem. For some, loud sounds hurt more than others and their quality of life is significantly reduced. Everyday activities such as walking down a street, going to the movies, and dining at restaurants came become intolerable, When someone’s noise sensitivity is too high, it causes discomfort or pain, they may have what is known as hyperacusis.
Hyperacusis is a disorder of loudness perception and affects an estimated one in 50,000 people. Loudness perception is the recognition of sound that is correlated to the physical characteristic of its intensity. When you hear a sound, your brain can exaggerate the intensity of that sound. This hypersensitivity to noise can make sounds appear to be louder than what they actually are. Often times, the most troubling sounds tend to be sudden, high-pitched noises. Those with hyperacusis are shown to be extra sensitive to loud noises that include high pitched squeals, such as brakes on a car, or the sound of a microwave opening. Additionally, many patients with hyperacusis also experience inner ear pain or a feeling of fullness (pressure) in the ears.
Richard Tyler, PhD. Describes four categories of hyperacusis:
- Loudness hyperacusis
- Annoyance hyperacusis
- Pain hyperacusis
- Fear hyperacusis
Other types of noise sensitivity include recruitment, hypersensitive hearing of specific frequencies and misophonia. Auditory recruitment is an unusually rapid growth of sound loudness and reflects hair cell dysfunction. Misophonia is described as a severe sensitivity to specific soft sounds with an associated emotional reaction.
Generally speaking, hyperacusis does not develop on its own. It can be caused by a number of diseases or health issues. The following have been known to lead to hyperacusis: changes in hearing due to aging, traumatic exposure to a loud noise, certain medications, medical procedures, depression, head trauma, and TMJ. Lyme disease, Meniere’s disease, Tay-Sachs disease, and Autism also take part in causing hyperacusis.
A normal ear is designed to minimize the harmful effects of loud noise. For those with hyperacusis or noise sensitivity, these systems are malfunctioning. Theories suggesting that the efferent fibers of the auditory nerve are selectively damaged while the hair cells that allow us to hear pure-tones remain intact have evolved. Other studies have suggested that facial nerve is dysfunctioning and as a result, the stapedius muscle is unable to dampen loud sounds. While these theories continue to generate research, the precise mechanism that causes hysperacusis is still unknown.
When an individual’s noise sensitivity is higher than an average person, it can lead to anxiety and depression. Noise sensitivity anxiety can cause a person to avoid experiences that they used to enjoy. They may no longer walk their child to the bus stop to avoid hearing the squeaking of the brakes as the bus comes to a stop. They may ask their spouse to do the dishes to avoid the scraping sounds of the dishes. They stop attending live performances, recitals, and concerts simply to avoid the pain induced by the loud applause. Even the performance itself, while a beautiful experience for some, can be excruciating for others. Eventually, this can lead to a fear of noise. They will make sure they no longer attend social settings because they fear the harmful sounds that come from such events. This fear driven anxiety is known as Phonophobia, or more commonly known as a fear of loud sounds.
Noise Sensitivity Treatment
Unfortunately, there is generally no solution when it comes to hyperacusis because the damage has already occurred. However, there are options you can take advantage of to avoid making your hypersensitive hearing worse or to help ease the pain you may be experiencing. The following are suggested:
- Wear hearing protection in noisier environments – your sensitivity can be exacerbated by louder sounds and this will allow for protection. However, using protection in your day to day tasks can make your symptoms worse so only use when needed
- Sound Therapy – low-level sounds to help with habituation
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – focuses on changing emotions and behaviors
In other words, hyperacusis is intolerance to loud sounds and is a condition in which every day sounds are perceived to be louder than they should be. We live in a noisy world and for some individuals it means experiencing pain when hearing ordinary sounds. From your own voice appearing too loud to sudden, high frequencies, these noises can cause pain and discomfort. Sensitive hearing can change how one lives their day to day life and can imped on their joy in events they previously loved. However, a number of solutions can be used to help ease the pain and discomfort to aid those who wish to not let this disorder disrupt their way of life.
- The Hearing Journal; Everyday Hearing