Hyperacusis is a rare hearing condition that affects a few individuals. This condition results in sounds that are typically perceived as normal being experienced as uncomfortably and, in many cases, unbearably loud. It is also known as decreased sound tolerance, or DST. Individuals with normal hearing typically experience a variety of sounds with varying degrees of loudness. Conversely, individuals with this ailment encounter sound as if the volume has been turned up too high.
Samples of everyday sounds that may be unbearable to someone living with hyperacusis:
• Running engines and motors
• Running water
• Electrical hums
• Sounds many consider soft
Experiencing hyperacusis can have a detrimental impact on one’s mental health, leading to feelings of irritability and anxiety. This condition can also have an adverse effect on the ability to participate in social situations, as individuals with hyperacusis often avoid loud environments to mitigate the risk of experiencing intense loudness. Hyperacusis is frequently associated with tinnitus, characterized by ringing, whistling, clicking, or roaring sounds in the ears, commonly linked to hearing loss. However, it is important to note that not all diagnoses of hyperacusis involve hearing loss or tinnitus.
How Common is Hyperacusis?
Medical professionals are currently lacking sufficient knowledge about hyperacusis, including its prevalence. Notwithstanding, research shows that hyperacusis affects between about 17% of children and adolescents and 15% of adults. However, determining the precise prevalence of the condition is challenging, as individuals describe their symptoms differently based on their unique experiences. Additionally, there’s currently no universally accepted method for screening or measuring hyperacusis. Consequently, researchers continually seek to enhance their understanding of the condition, including its prevalence.
What are the Symptoms?
The severity of this disorder can range from mild annoyance to intense discomfort that can cause balance issues and seizures. It is essential to take this condition seriously and consult a medical professional for proper diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms include:
• Tinnitus (ringing or roaring sounds)
• Pain either in or around the ear
• Blocked ears or feeling full of pressure
Continuous exposure to intense and unpleasant sounds can result in various symptoms that may have a detrimental effect on your mental health and social life. These symptoms may include:
• Anxiety and depression
• Issues in relationships
• Social isolation and avoidance
Moreover, these symptoms may intensify when you are stressed or tired or anticipate interacting in spaces you fear will be excessively loud.
What are the Causes?
Research is still ongoing to understand the causes of this condition. It is believed that the structures in the brain that control how we perceive stimulation make sounds seem louder. With hyperacusis, sounds are perceived as being louder regardless of their frequency, whether in the low range, such as thunder rumbling, medium range, like human speech, or high range, such as a siren or whistle. Damage to parts of the auditory nerve may cause hyperacusis. Another theory is that damage to the facial nerve causes hyperacusis. Many conditions associated with hyperacusis, such as Ramsay Hunt syndrome, Bell’s palsy, and Lyme disease, all involve facial nerve damage. However, there isn’t a single cause that explains all cases of hyperacusis. Instead, it is associated with multiple possible contributing factors and conditions.
Other contributing elements may include:
• Lengthy exposure to loud sounds is a common cause of hyperacusis. This condition is prevalent among individuals like musicians and construction workers.
• Exposure to sudden and loud noises such as gunshots, vehicle crashes, and fireworks.
Hyperacusis is a condition that is often associated with other conditions, such as tinnitus. Studies show that up to 86% of individuals with tinnitus may also have hyperacusis. Similarly, as many as 90% of individuals with Williams syndrome may experience this condition. Additionally, it’s worth noting that close to 50% of individuals diagnosed with hyperacusis also present a behavioral health condition, such as anxiety. It’s important to consider that hyperacusis symptoms may arise in some people following surgery or as a reaction to medication.
Obtaining a precise diagnosis for hyperacusis can be a complex process, as not all healthcare professionals are knowledgeable about this condition. It may be necessary to seek assistance from an audiologist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist to pinpoint the underlying issue.
If your hyperacusis is suspected to be caused by a structural problem such as facial nerve paralysis, your healthcare provider may order imaging procedures. Additionally, if there are concerns that your hyperacusis is related to a condition such as Lyme disease, your healthcare provider may recommend lab work.
Hyperacusis is a condition for which no standard treatment has been established. However, treatments primarily aim to minimize physical symptoms and provide coping strategies for managing the mental stress that accompanies this condition. Some treatment options include:
• Sound therapy
• Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
• Tinnitus retraining therapy (TRT)
Visiting a Healthcare Provider
Individuals who present with hyperacusis symptoms may initially turn to the use of earplugs or headphones in an attempt to mitigate the impact of surrounding sounds. This may, however, exacerbate the issue, leading to heightened sound sensitivity upon removal of these items. Furthermore, avoidance of social settings may contribute to the development or exacerbation of behavioral health concerns. It is crucial to seek the guidance of a healthcare provider if you are experiencing hyperacusis symptoms. Though identifying the underlying cause may require time, therapeutic interventions can help alleviate the symptoms and offer relief.