There are times when we all get irritated by noise, whether it’s building construction or a noisy neighbour. But if you are finding yourself consistently disturbed by noises, perhaps finding them uncomfortable, overly loud, intrusive, or even painful, you may be suffering from hyperacusis.
What is hyperacusis?
Hyperacusis is a condition where noises, even common everyday ones, can seem very loud to you, often much more so than they actually are. You might find it very difficult to feel relaxed unless you have a very quiet environment, and struggle being in noisy places as it feels painful to you, or causes anxiety. It may get to the point where you find you are struggling to do everyday activities because the sounds around you are so loud and uncomfortable. Hyperacusis has several levels, from mild annoyance to affecting everyday life and activities.
You may have heard of misophonia, or phonophobia – these are related to hyperacusis and are recognised as sound sensitivity disorders. Misophonia is where hearing certain sounds causes an intense emotional reaction in you – ranging from anger to panic. Often the sounds trigger a strong feeling of dislike or hatred. Chewing sounds or finger tapping are common triggers of misophonia.
Phonophobia is where you have an intense fear of certain noises; generally, these are everyday sounds such as traffic or kitchen noise. Phonophobia is often closely linked with hyperacusis and differentiating between the two is not always easy for a family doctor. This is where referral to a specialist ENT or hearing clinic is the best course of action.
How does hyperacusis affect everyday life?
For much of our day, we are surrounded by sounds. This can be background noise, such as traffic, people chatting, a radio playing, and even leaves rustling. Most people are able to absorb this into a kind of ‘white noise’ and ignore it, but for people with hyperacusis, every sound will be distinctive and noticeable to them. This kind of sensory overload can be very distressing and difficult to process, leaving sufferers feeling anxious, overwhelmed, and struggling to concentrate.
Not all hyperacusis is to this extent, and it has been reported that most sufferers are aware of how the condition affects them but it generally doesn’t interfere severely with their day-to-day life. For people who are on the severe end of the spectrum for hyperacusis, they may find it difficult to complete everyday activities or be in environments such as a supermarket or office.
Causes of hyperacusis
Hyperacusis has been linked to tinnitus, which is a condition that causes a person to hear sounds that are not generated by an external source. Common noises heard by people with tinnitus include ringing, buzzing or humming sounds. If you’ve been to a loud nightclub or a noisy music gig, you might have woken up with mild tinnitus symptoms the following day which disappear in a few hours. There is still not a clear medical link between the two although patients with one of the conditions usually report having the other to some degree.
There are a few serious medical conditions where hyperacusis is a symptom. These include Lyme disease, Ménière’s disease, Williams Syndrome, Bell’s Palsy, migraines, and head injuries. People who have autism may also be more prone to hyperacusis, as they may struggle to process sensory information, and loud noises can exacerbate this. There is also evidence to suggest that a traumatic or negative life event, such as the death of a close loved one, can cause hyperacusis.
Treatment for hyperacusis
Hyperacusis can be treated with various methods, and it’s about finding a method that works for you to help you cope with and effectively manage the condition. It is recommended that you do not use ear protectors or earplugs to muffle or deaden sounds unless absolutely necessary. Doing so can actually cause the auditory system to become even more sensitive and therefore worsen the issue.
One of the most successful treatments for the management of hyperacusis is sound therapy. This is the use of low-level soft sounds that help create a quiet distraction. Often people with hyperacusis actually find it worse being in complete silence as then any sound is amplified. By using soft sounds or music as a background cushion, it is easier to adjust to the sound levels and gradually accustom to certain noises in everyday life. Typically, a person would start with white noise, as this creates a soothing background level noise that is not intrusive and helps start the journey towards adjusting to normal sounds.
You may also be offered cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, as part of your treatment for hyperacusis. CBT works to help change your thought patterns and recognise what thought patterns are helpful or unhelpful in managing hyperacusis. For example, if you find yourself getting angry or distressed by certain sounds, CBT can help you to find a way to manage these feelings and move through them so you can cope with the noise and environment in a more calm way.
The best thing you can do to help find a way to manage your hyperacusis is to consult a professional ENT (ear nose and throat) doctor or a hearing specialist. They will be able to find out if there is any physical cause behind your hyperacusis, as well as to help you find a treatment plan to manage your condition. Hyperacusis can feel quite isolating and you may be struggling to cope with everyday life, but there are professionals available who understand and can help you find ways of managing it so you can get back to a normal routine.
At London Hearing, we are dedicated to supporting people’s hearing and have been since 2006. Our independent team of in-house consultants, professors and clinicians are here to help people experience the world around them as best they can through their sense of sound. We use the latest in hearing technology and work closely with our patients to ensure they are getting the best treatment that suits their needs. Contact us today to find out more: https://www.londonhearing.co.uk/