Pain is your body’s way of delivering information. It’s not a terribly fun method, mind you but it can be effective. When that megaphone you’re standing next to gets too loud, the pain lets you know that severe ear damage is occurring and you immediately (if you’re wise) cover your ears or remove yourself from that rather loud environment.
But for about 8-10% of people, quiet sounds can be perceived as painfully loud, in spite of their measured decibel level. Hearing specialists refer to this condition as hyperacusis. (It’s a fancy name for overly sensitive ears.) There’s no cure for hyperacusis, but there are treatments that can help you get a handle on your symptoms.
An Increased Sensitivity to Sound
Hyperacusis is a hypersensitivity to sound. Most people with hyperacusis have episodes that are triggered by a certain set of sounds (typically sounds within a frequency range). Normally quiet noises sound loud. And normally loud noises sound even louder.
No one’s quite sure what causes hyperacusis, though it is often associated with tinnitus or other hearing issues (and, in some cases, neurological issues). There’s a noticeable degree of individual variability when it comes to the symptoms, severity, and treatment of hyperacusis.
What’s a Typical Hyperacusis Response?
In most cases, hyperacusis will look and feel a little something like this:
- You will notice a specific sound–a sound that everyone else perceives as quiet–and that sound will seem exceptionally loud to you.
- You may experience pain and buzzing in your ears (this pain and buzzing may last for days or weeks after you hear the original sound).
- You may also experience dizziness and difficulty keeping your balance.
- The louder the sound is, the more intense your response and discomfort will be.
Treatments for Hyperacusis
When you have hyperacusis the world can become a minefield, especially when your ears are overly sensitive to a wide range of frequencies. You never know when a lovely night out will suddenly turn into an audio onslaught that will leave you with ringing ears and a three-day migraine.
That’s why treatment is so important. You’ll want to talk to a specialist about which treatments will be most up your alley (this all tends to be quite variable). The most common options include the following.
One of the most commonly deployed treatments for hyperacusis is something called a masking device. While it might sound perfect for Halloween (sorry), in reality, a masking device is a piece of technology that cancels out certain wavelengths of sounds. These devices, then, are able to selectively hide those triggering wavelengths of sounds before they ever reach your ear. You can’t have a hyperacusis attack if you can’t hear the triggering sound!
Earplugs are a less sophisticated take on the same basic approach: you can’t have a hyperacusis episode if you can’t hear… well, anything. It’s definitely a low tech approach, and there are some drawbacks. There’s some evidence to suggest that, over the long run, the earplugs can throw your hearing ecosystem even further out of whack and make your hyperacusis worse. Talk to your hearing specialist if you’re thinking about wearing earplugs.
One of the most comprehensive approaches to treating hyperacusis is called ear retraining therapy. You’ll use a combination of devices, physical therapy and emotional counseling to try to change the way you respond to certain types of sounds. The idea is that you can train yourself to ignore sounds (kind of like with tinnitus). Generally, this approach has a good success rate but depends heavily on your commitment to the process.
Less Common Approaches
There are also some less common approaches to treating hyperacusis, such as medications or ear tubes. Both of these approaches have met with only mixed success, so they aren’t used quite as commonly (it’ll depend on the individual and the specialist).
Treatment Makes a Huge Difference
Because hyperacusis tends to vary from person to person, you and your specialist will develop a unique treatment plan depending on your symptoms as you experience them. There’s no single best approach to treating hyperacusis–it really depends on finding the right treatment for you.