Hyperacusis is a rare hearing disorder

Affecting only 1 in 50,000 people, hyperacusis is a rare hearing disorder that affects how you perceive sounds. If you are suffering from hyperacusis you may be left feeling like the world’s volume has been turned up to 11. Louder sounds such as a young baby’s cry or other high-pitched noises like glass breaking can cause physical pain and increase anxiety which can be an isolating experience. Most people who have the disorder also have another condition called tinnitus, which is a buzzing or ringing in your ear. 

What is hyperacusis?

Hyperacusis is a rare disorder that makes it hard to deal with everyday sounds. Those affected experience a heightened sensitivity to sound, making certain sounds, such as a running tap, a car engine or even a loud conversation, seem unbearably noisy, while others around don’t seem to notice. It can vary in its severity, from being a mild inconvenience to a life-changing condition. 

Signs and symptoms of hyperacusis

If you think you are suffering with hyperacusis, you will feel a sudden discomfort when hearing particular sounds. It can sometimes feel very painful, and in some cases seem as though all sounds are just too loud. It can sometimes be coupled with phonophobia, a fear of noise. This fear is often sparked by the pain sounds can cause as you begin to associate noise with pain. The disorder is often experienced by those affected by tinnitus, and can also be linked to anxiety and depression. Hyperacusis can come on suddenly or gradually. Symptoms include:

  • Finding very quiet sounds are comfortable, but ordinary sounds (like voices at conversational volume) are too loud or distorted
  • Your own voice seems too loud or distorted
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Low intensity sounds, such as the noise of a refrigerator, seem too loud
  • Sudden, loud noise can cause discomfort and pain

Loud noises can worsen your sensitivity to sound, cause further distortion and a ‘popping’ sensation inside the ear. Being around loud sounds can also worsen tinnitus symptoms.

Causes of hyperacusis

If you are affected by hyperacusis, your brain exaggerates certain vibrations, causing discomfort. Some of the most common causes are:

  • Head injury
  • Exposure to loud noises
  • Damage to one or both ears because of medications or toxins
  • Viral infection affecting facial or inner ear nerves
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder
  • Lyme disease
  • Tay-Sachs disease
  • Migraine headaches
  • Regular Valium use
  • Some types of epilepsy
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Meniere's disease
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Hyperacusis treatment

If you think you have hyperacusis, have a discussion about this with your GP, they may refer you to see an Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist (otolaryngologist or ENT). You may need to see an audiologist first for a hearing test.

Treatment will vary depending on the cause of your hyperacusis. In some cases, sensitivity to sound will get better on its own over time. If you have sensitivity to noise and already use hearing aids, these can be tweaked to allow for clearer sound without excessive amplification.

As it quite often appears as a result of another medical condition, investigating this may be the first step in treatment and is something your GP can start. Once other conditions have been ruled out, you will often undergo sound therapy to help you to become less affected by the sounds you are sensitive to.

You may also find cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help, particularly if you may suffer from anxiety or depression. Hyperacusis can make these problems worse, or even cause them. CBT helps to address the emotions that come with it, and change them in order to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Preventing hyperacusis

Whilst the exact cause of hyperacusis is unknown, you may experience this condition due to damage to your hearing from excessive noise exposure. To prevent this and other hearing concerns there are several steps you can take to ensure you protect your hearing. These include:

  • Listening to music at a reduced volume for shorter periods of time
  • Wearing ear protection - for example at concerts, or at work if necessary
  • Being aware that extended exposure to sounds above 85 decibels can damage your hearing.
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