If you’ve ever cringed at the sound of nails on a chalkboard, you’ll know just how unpleasant some sounds can be. Of course, some people have a higher sensitivity to sound than others. While the majority of people respond negatively to excessively loud sounds or very sharp sounds, others find everyday sounds overwhelming too.
Sensitivity to sound affects people with hearing loss and those with hearing function. However, it is more common in people with certain types of hearing loss, such as sensorineural or age-related hearing loss. In addition to this, people who experience ear ringing or tinnitus may also have hypersensitive hearing.
To combat the unpleasant effect of sounds that hurt, it’s important to understand the different types of sound sensitivity. By understanding why you have hypersensitive hearing, you can take steps to resolve the issue and enhance your auditory experiences.
Different Types of Sound Sensitivity
People with normal hearing function will typically find very loud noises uncomfortable. Noises within a frequency range of 2,000 to 5,000 Hz are known to be particularly difficult to listen to. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, our hearing function is damaged when we are exposed to loud noises. In fact, anything over 85 decibels could cause hearing loss. As loud sounds damage the nerves, membranes and hair cells within the ears, it’s logical that we experience these sounds as unpleasant noise. As we find these noises so uncomfortable to listen to, we are more likely to switch to a different environment or lower the volume, thus protecting our hearing function from exposure to the loud sounds.
Secondly, studies have shown that our brains respond differently to high pitched sounds, particularly those within a 2,000 to 5,000 Hz frequency range. Although it’s not entirely understood why this happens, imaging studies have confirmed that a particular part of the brain, the amygdala, becomes active when we hear noises at this level. As the amygdala is responsible for our emotional reactions, it may explain why these high-pitched noises cause us to experience a sense of discomfort, fear or even panic.
People with normal hearing function can tolerate noises of up to 85-95 decibels before they experience sensitivity. In cases of hyperacusis, however, the individual’s ability to tolerate noise is lowered. Essentially, their Loudness Discomfort Levels (LDL's) are much lower than average.
Fortunately, hyperacusis can be treated by wearing hearing aids. Hearing aids that generate pink noise act as masking devices which minimize the impact of everyday sounds and background noise. By reducing your sensitivity to sound, carefully programmed hearing aids with pink noise generators can significantly reduce the symptoms of hyperacusis.
This type of sensitivity to sound generally affects people who have established hearing loss. When your hearing function is reduced, it is often because the nerves, membranes and hair cells have been damaged. The type and extent of the damage will determine what pitches and frequencies you are no longer able to hear.
When you are exposed to noises within a certain pitch or frequency, you are unable to hear them due to hearing loss. If they are made louder, however, they will eventually switch to a different pitch or frequency, which you can hear. This sudden exposure to noise is what makes the sound so uncomfortable and may explain why people with hearing loss often report increased sensitivity to sounds.
As a sound becomes louder, the hair cells next to the damaged cells are ‘recruited’. If these cells are undamaged, your hearing function for this particular pitch or frequency is normal. You may be unable to hear a television at volume levels of 30-45, for example, but once it hits 46, it’s too loud for you. This is because the volume between 30-45 would usually be picked up by hair cells that are now damaged but, at 46, the next hair cells are recruited. With no hearing loss affected the recruited hearing cells, you can suddenly hear the television at volume level 46, which is so loud that it’s uncomfortable to listen to.
Wearing hearing aids can greatly improve this type of sound sensitivity. As your hearing function will be greatly improved when wearing hearing devices, there won’t be a sudden gap between not hearing anything and being exposed to very loud noise. In addition to this, wearing a hearing aid that generates pink noise can also be a useful way to treat sound sensitivity that’s related to hearing loss.
Some people are simply born with hypersensitivity to certain sounds. Typically, individuals are only hypersensitive to sounds which are above a certain frequency, although this varies from person to person. Depending on the level of hypersensitivity, even everyday sounds and background noise can be extremely distressing.
People with autism sometimes experience hypersensitive hearing, although it can be present in isolation. With auditory integration therapy, however, a person’s hypersensitivity can be reduced, which enables them to tolerate sounds without having a negative reaction.
People with misophonia have an intense dislike of sound. Unlike other sound sensitivities, misophonia isn’t limited to loud or high-pitched. In fact, soft sounds can often be the most common triggers for people with misophonia. Sound therapy is often used to treat misophonia, although some people find that masking devices and white noise can help them to cope with exposure to noise more effectively.
Treating Sensitivity to Sounds
As you can see, there are numerous causes of hearing sensitivity. To ensure your sensitivity is treated appropriately, it is important to seek advice from a qualified hearing care professional. By consulting an audiologist, for example, you can obtain a comprehensive diagnosis and understand exactly what is causing your hearing sensitivity.
If exposure to loud noises has caused some level of hearing loss, for example, this could be the underlying reason for your increased sensitivity. Although hearing loss can’t be cured, you can protect your hearing function by using hearing protection. If you already have permanent hearing loss, wearing the right hearing aids can minimize your sensitivity to sounds and improve your hearing function.
Crucially, this information will enable you to access appropriate treatment. No matter what the cause of your increased sensitivity to sound, the right hearing care professional can help to enhance your auditory experience.
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