When Everyday Noise Is Unbearable

By Pallavi Bharadwaj

Like many people, George Rue loved music. He played guitar in a band. He attended concerts often. In his late 20s, he started feeling a dull ache in his ears after musical events. After a blues concert almost nine years ago, “I left with terrible ear pain and ringing, and my life changed forever,” said Rue, 45, of Waterford, Connecticut. He perceived all but the mildest sounds as not just loud, but painful. It hurt to hear.

Mr. Rue was given a diagnosis of hyperacusis, a nonspecific term that has assorted definitions, including “sound sensitivity,” “decreased sound tolerance,” and “a loudness tolerance problem.”

Hyperacusis can be extremely debilitating, and at present, there is no cure. The researchers in The American Journal of Audiology study provided an overview of the field, and possible related areas, in the hope of facilitating future research. They reviewed and referenced literature on hyperacusis and related areas. This study has been funded by Hyperacusis Research and Hearing Health Foundation

Hyperacusis encompasses a wide range of reactions to sound, which can be grouped into the categories of excessive loudness, annoyance, fear, and pain. Many different causes have been proposed, and it will be important to appreciate and quantify different subgroups. Reasonable approaches to assessing the different forms of hyperacusis are emerging, including psychoacoustical measures, questionnaires, and brain imaging. Hyperacusis can make life difficult for many, forcing sufferers to dramatically alter their work and social habits.

Loud noises, even when they aren’t painful, can damage both the sensory cells and sensory nerve fibers of the inner ear over time, causing hearing impairment, said M. Charles Liberman, a professor of otology at Harvard Medical School, who heads a hearing research lab at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. And for some people who are susceptible, possibly because of some combination of genes that gives them “tender” ears, noise sets in motion “an anomalous response,” he said.

This article has been adapted from a post on The New York Times’s Wellness blog. To read the original article, please click here.

For information about tinnitus (ringing in the ears), please see these resources on the HHF website.

Read the story on Hyperacusis on HHF’s website.

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