Hyperacusis is a bothersome condition related to and often accompanied by tinnitus–ringing in the ears. Hyperacusis is also generally misunderstood by lay people and physicians alike. It is often described as sensitivity to sound, or noise sensitivity. It literally means super hearing–perceiving sound as louder than it is. It represents a reduction in your threshold of comfort for sound, and is caused by an alteration in a sound-processing system in your brain. Sometimes referred to as sensitive ears or tender ears, hyperacusis actually originates in the brain rather than in the ears. Perhaps the biggest problem sufferers experience is fear of sound–fear that loud sounds will permanently damage their hearing. Examples of sounds that may be painful to their ears include an acoustic guitar, a passing truck on a city street, clanging dishes in a noisy restaurant, or booming sounds in a movie theater. Even individuals who habitually speak loudly, or who raise their voices to be heard in a noisy environment, such as a busy restaurant, or at a party. The natural tendency is to seek silence-sweet, comfortable silence. And what is the worst possible thing for these people? Sweet, comfortable silence.
Nerve cells in the brain need sound in order to function normally. They don’t do well when idle, so if there’s no sound to hear, they recall earlier sounds and then attempt (poorly) to duplicate them-this causes tinnitus, a frequent companion of hyperacusis. Like many sensory sensations, sound is interpreted in relation to other sounds. If you’ve just listened to a loud recording or a fireworks display and somebody walks past whistling a tune, you probably won’t hear the whistling at all. But if you awaken from a deep sleep in a silent room in the middle of the night, and the same whistler walks past your open window, it seems so loud that you could hear it from across the block. Why does that happen? Because a low level of sound results in an increased sensitivity of hearing. For example, when you wear ear plugs to block out most sound, your hearing system becomes super attentive, literally searching for sound. Whatever gets through seems far louder than it actually is. Conversely, if you keep some background sound around you at all times, such as a radio or CD playing, or a waterfall or fountain, other sounds will not seem nearly as loud or uncomfortable. The hearing system thrives best when performing its basic function of receiving external sounds. Sounds of 75 or 80 dB that seem dangerously loud or uncomfortable when you have hyperacusis will not damage your ears. Prolonged or repeated exposure to noise levels above 85dB will harm anybody’s hearing, and levels above 140dB may cause permanent damage with a single exposure.
As with tinnitus, affected individuals must undergo a through examination by a qualified Otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose and Throat specialist.) Once this exam is completed, many of the same therapies can be used that have proven effective for tinnitus. Medication is rarely necessary, but Anxiety Relief Techniques® can be very effective. Remember to perfuse your environment with sound because a sound-rich background is essential. Play a radio, CDs, listen to music or conversation on TV, or even purchase a re-circulating fountain. It doesn’t have to be loud, just a comfortable level. It is always a good idea to protect your ears with quality earplugs from really loud or painful sounds, but remove earplugs for normal everyday activities and noises. Gradually increase the amount and level of sound around you and see how quickly you’ll improve. The biggest relief generally comes when you know that 1) there is nothing physically wrong with your ears, 2) normal sounds will not damage your hearing, and 3) you have nothing to fear from this sound sensitivity.