Hearing problems are not strictly limited to difficulty with hearing. Some people suffer from over sensitivity to sound, which causes them to startle easily or find normal noises painful to hear. If you find everyday sounds like the rattle of cutlery against a plate intrusive and uncomfortable, you may be experiencing ‘hyperacusis’ – or a hyper acuity to sound.
While you might assume a hearing care professional solely helps the hard of hearing; however, they are qualified to diagnose and treat many hearing health issues, including hyperacusis.
What are the Signs of Sound Sensitivity?
Sound sensitivity can come on suddenly or slowly over time and impacts individuals differently. In basic terms, the sufferer finds everyday sounds uncomfortably loud. For example, a quietly ticking clock may take on the characteristics of a constant drumbeat in the head. But what is uncomfortable or painful for one patient may be fine for another, which can make this a complex condition.
Also, people who suffer from hyperacusis are also more likely to suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear, which is another problem your hearing care provider can help with.
What Causes Hyperacusis?
There is no specific answer to what causes over-sensitive, which is why it’s being heavily researched. Some cases develop after exposure to loud noises, while others are the result of a head injury.
One theory is the ‘volume control’ center in the brain, which tells the listener when a noise is soft or loud, gets maladjusted so noises sound disproportionately loud. Another theory is the system in the inner ear that registers sounds, malfunctions and tells the brain noises are louder than they actually are.
Is Treatment Available?
It is important to seek help from a hearing healthcare provider if you’re dealing with sensitivity to sound. This is important because some of the coping strategies people often adopt can actually worsen the problem in the long term. Sources of help include your primary care physician, hearing health professional or an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT).
Strategies for decreasing this over sensitivity to noise typically includes a gradual exposure to ‘safe’ sounds, or so-called ‘pink’ noise, which helps build up the listener’s tolerance. This is the exact opposite of what many people are tempted to do, which is to wear earplugs to block out the noise. While this is effective in the immediate short term, the silence makes the ear even more sensitive once the plugs are removed.
Again, your hearing professional is best suited to advise you if your work involves wearing headphones to protect your ears in a noisy environment. They can suggest special earplugs that filter certain sound frequencies, but still give you the ability to hear others.