Why Are My Ears so Sensitive to Noise? Hyperacusis Explained

Are you experiencing sensitivity to noises that you don’t think you should? It’s not a common problem, but you certainly aren’t the first to have sensitive hearing.

Sensitivity to noise can be very uncomfortable and distressing to experience, and not just because it can be painful. For those people suffering from sensitivity to sounds, the condition can be confusing. Often appearing as if from nowhere, or coming on gradually, a person can go from perfectly normal hearing to being unable to endure everyday noises.

This guide from our audiologist specialists is designed to help you understand sensitivity to sound, and provide you with all the information you need to seek treatment. We’ll discuss the types of sensitive hearing, the signs and symptoms, what causes you to be sensitive to sounds, and how you can take action to make your life better.

What Exactly Is Sound Sensitivity

Sound sensitivity is exactly what it sounds like. Your ears have a reduced tolerance to not just loud noises but also noises of a decibel range that would typically be comfortable. Sound sensitivity causes the inner ear to convert noise stimulus into excessively loud sounds. For somebody with sound sensitivity, even very normal noises like the jangling of keys or running water can be very unconformable.

Types of Sound Sensitivity

If you have sound sensitivity, you probably have hyperacusis.

Hyperacusis is categorised as a condition where individuals find everyday sounds excessively loud. It’s the most common form of sound sensitivity. There are other forms of sound sensitivity like recruitment, whereby the ear starts to engage (or recruit) more receptors to hear a noise, turning a normal noise into a loud noise. This is very rare. There are also some individuals with noise sensitivity that hear excessively loud sounds but only if the sound is at a certain frequency. Again, this is very rare. While still not a common condition, the vast majority of people with sound sensitivity are suffering from hyperacusis.

How Common Is Hyperacusis

Sound sensitivity is thought to be quite a rare hearing condition. The British Tinnitus Association reports on studies that suggest 9% of adults in the UK report some form of hyperacusis, although experts suggest it’s actually closer to 2%. Even within this 2%, the number of those with severely sensitive hearing is actually quite small. The Hearing Health Foundation estimates around 1 in every 50,000 people has some form of hearing sensitivity.

The Symptoms of Sound Sensitivity

The main symptoms of hyperacusis are very straightforward. Those with sound sensitivity will experience the same discomfort or even pain within their ear that you would expect from exposure to loud noise. Imagine a drill sergeant is screaming loudly in your ear except this discomfort is caused by a normal noise like tapping on a desk or a vacuum cleaner. With noise sensitivity, your tolerance for noise is greatly reduced.

Hyperacusis may happen in one ear or both.

If you suffer from hyperacusis, you may experience very severe and debilitating symptoms, or you may experience mild and barely noticeable symptoms. Plenty of people who suffer from hearing sensitivity do not realise they have a medical condition and simply think they’ve got really good hearing.

Secondary symptoms of sound sensitivity, such as mental health problems and social dysfunction, can come about as a result of sound intolerance. Excess loudness of even gentle noises like talking or the sound of cutlery being set may mean those with hyperacusis avoid situations where they are exposed to noise, which leads to reduced contact with people and lower quality of life for the individual.

A Healthy Change in Sound Sensitivity

It’s important to note at this point that sound sensitivity within a natural range is healthy and should not be a concern. If you experience a comfortable sound one day that is bothersome the next, such as the sound of a radio being too loud when yesterday it was fine — or notice the sound of somebody chewing when you normally don’t — this isn’t something to worry about. Noises can be louder or quieter depending on how much attention we give them, such as if we’re stressed or relaxed, tired or energised. A sound that seems louder than it used to is not often a warning sign of hyperacusis. It’s only when that normal sound causes discomfort or pain that you need to think about treatment. Sounds being more annoying than usual is not a sign of noise sensitivity.

A perfect example is people chewing food. Plenty of people are aggravated by the sound of people chewing food, finding it loud and obnoxious, where many others don’t register it at all. This is not a form of noise sensitivity but instead related to mood and mindset.

What Are the Causes of Sensitivity to Sound?

In most cases, the cause of hyperacusis is a mystery. The majority of people who suffer from sensitivity to sounds actually have no diagnosable hearing issue, medicinal condition, or extenuating factor that can be connected to the diagnosis of hyperacusis. While most of the time it’s impossible to pinpoint the cause of hearing sensitivity, there are some known causes of hyperacusis.

Medical conditions like Lyme disease, migraines, inflammation of the ear, or TMJ, have all been noted to cause hyperacusis in selected cases. Patients with these conditions are not guaranteed to have hyperacusis, but it is possible.

A head injury like blows to the head or deployment of airbags can damage the inner ear and result in hyperacusis. Surgery to the ear can also lead to damage and sensitivity to sounds.

Certain medications can interrupt nerve signals or destroy cells in the ear, which can lead to an inability to control sound and result in hyperacusis. If signals are only temporarily blocked and not damaged, changing medication might work to reverse the problem.

Sudden loud noises can be the cause of hyperacusis. As with a head injury, the inner ear is damaged.

Tinnitus and Hyperacusis

Tinnitus — a disorder that causes persistent ringing in the ear — has been shown to have strong links to hyperacusis. Tinnitus is not likely to be the cause of hyperacusis itself but instead, the cause of tinnitus is probably also causing your sound sensitivity. Since they are closely linked, treatment of one may help support the other. Nearly 90% of people with hyperacusis have tinnitus, and around 30% of tinnitus sufferers have hyperacusis. The two are very closely linked, which leads many experts to theorise that the physiological mechanism that results in tinnitus may also be the cause of unexplained hyperacusis. This would make a lot of sense. Tinnitus is caused by activity in the brain, not the ear itself. If unexplained hyperacusis is also caused by activity in the brain, it would help us to understand why we can’t pinpoint a root cause. There is still much about the human brain we don’t know. The bright side of this information is that if you suffer from both hyperacusis and tinnitus, you may find relief for both by through a single therapy.

We cannot say for certain that seeking treatment for your tinnitus will help your sensitivity to noise, but it is a possibility. Hyperactivity of the nerve pathways connecting your ear to your brain may be the problem. At Regain Hearing, we offer highly effective tinnitus treatment that can help manage that hyperactivity. Discover more about our services by getting in touch today.

Do You Have Hyperacusis?

The best way to know if you’re actually suffering from hyperacusis is to get a diagnosis from an expert. You can visit your GP, but since hearing sensitivity is a rare condition, most physicians will have limited experience or access to information. We recommend seeing a hearing expert instead, who will perform a hearing test. You can do this privately or by NHS referral. Be aware that NHS referral times can be up to 18 weeks.

But why a hearing test? Aren’t hearing tests for hearing loss?

While hyperacusis is not often caused by distinct hearing loss, the loss of hearing may be a factor of an underlying condition causing your hyperacusis, which a hearing test can detect. Hearing tests, however, are not just for hearing loss and can be used to gauge your range of hearing and identify sounds causing you problems. We suggest you book a hearing test with a specialist team — like the practice at Regain Hearing — and discuss with them your concerns. They’ll be able to investigate your specific issue, provide information, analyse your personal history and current hearing ability in order to identify the best possible treatment for your sensitivity to sound.

Can You Cure Hyperacusis? How to Treat Sensitive Hearing

In the vast majority of cases, hyperacusis does not actually need treatment. The distress and confusion is the primary issue for patients, and knowledge is enough to help them make simple changes to impact their lifestyle in a positive way.

If you have sensitivity to noise that is uncomfortable but tolerable, it’s important not to avoid sounds by using protective equipment like earplugs or earmuffs. While it may seem like an easy option for treatment, it’s actually counterproductive. Total avoidance of sounds can actually increase sensitivity. Think of your ears like the skin beneath your fingernails. After cutting your nails, you’ll find the skin underneath tender to the touch. The same concept can be applied to your ears and hearing sensitivity. Lack of exposure only makes sensitive hearing more sensitive.

For those with severe hyperacusis, treatment often revolves around the cause. If there is a known factor involved in your noise sensitivity, like an injury or a medical condition, treatment of this factor will be the first way caregivers look to help reduce the symptoms of hyperacusis. If no external factors are known to cause your hearing sensitivity, sound therapy is the primary method of treatment. This involves the introduction of noise and increased exposure gradually. As with the sensitive skin under your fingernails, the idea being that gently reintroducing sensation can reduce general sensitivity.

Other options for treatment include hearing devices like hearing aids to provide background noise that distracts the brain and stops it focusing on loud noises, as well as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a form of managing and accepting symptoms.

Sensitive hearing is a very unique and distressing condition, but you do have options for support. Get in touch with our specialist ear clinic and audiologists today. We can arrange tests to identify the root of your problem and look at ways to help you manage your hyperacusis.

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