What Is Sound Sensitivity (Hyperacusis)?

Hyperacusis is a hearing disorder that makes it hard to deal with everyday sounds. If you have it, certain sounds may seem unbearably loud even though people around you don't seem to notice them.

Some that might seem louder than they should include:

  • A running faucet
  • A kitchen appliance, like a refrigerator or dishwasher
  • A car engine
  • A loud conversation

Some people are only mildly bothered by these sounds. Others have severe symptoms such as a loss of balance or seizures.

Hyperacusis is rare. It affects 1 in 50,000 people. Most people who have it also have another condition called tinnitus, which is a buzzing or ringing in your ear.

Hyperacusis is a hearing disorder. But a lot of people who have it also have normal hearing.

Causes

Your ears detect sounds as vibrations. If you have hyperacusis, your brain confuses or exaggerates certain vibrations. So even if you get the same signals as someone else, your brain reacts differently to them. That's what causes the discomfort.

People aren't typically born with hyperacusis -- it's usually caused by certain diseases or health issues. The most common ones are:

Being around a loud noise also can cause hyperacusis. Something like a single loud gunshot can trigger the condition. But it also can come from being near loud noises over a long period.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If you think you have hyperacusis, you'll see an ear, nose, and throat doctor (otolaryngologist or ENT). He'll ask about your medical history, look closely at your ears, and give you a hearing test to confirm it.

Your treatment will depend on what caused it. In some cases, like with injuries to your brain or ear, the sound sensitivity might get better on its own.

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If it doesn't, your doctor might recommend something called sound desensitization. You'll work with a specialist who will help you learn to deal with sound. You'll listen to very quiet noises for a certain period every day and build up gradually to louder sounds.

Most of the time, this is done with a device you wear on your affected ear or on both ears. The sound usually sounds like static, so it shouldn't bother you or cause pain. It can take 6 months to a year or more to get the full benefit of the therapy.

There hasn't been enough research done on some other treatments used for hyperacusis to know if they're helpful. These include acupuncture and relaxation exercises. Another experimental treatment is called auditory integration therapy (AIT). It's often used in autism treatment. It involves listening to music at different volumes for a period every day.

Your doctor also may give you medicine to help you manage the stress the condition can cause.

If you have hyperacusis, you might be tempted to use earplugs to muffle sound or stay away from social situations where there might be the kinds of sounds that bother you. While these can give you short-term relief, they can, over the long-term, make your symptoms worse. That's because when you eventually take out your earplugs or go into a social setting, the sounds can seem even louder.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Shelley A. Borgia, CCCA on January 23, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology: "Hyperacusis: An Increased Sensitivity to Everyday Sounds."

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association: "Hyperacusis."

Vestibular Disorders Associations: "Vestibular Hyperacusis."

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