If you have a partner with neglected hearing loss, you realize that getting their attention can be… a challenge. Their name is the first thing you try saying. “Greg”, you say, but you used a normal, inside volume level, so you get nothing. You try increasing your volume and saying Greg’s name again but he still doesn’t hear you. So finally, you shout.
Well this time Greg hears you and crossly asks what you’re shouting for.
This interaction isn’t the result of stubbornness or impatience. Hypersensitivity to loud sound is often documented in those with hearing loss. And this sensitivity to loud noises can help explain why Greg can’t hear his name at a normal volume but gets aggravated when you shout at him.
Can hearing loss make loud sounds even worse?
So, hearing loss is kind of curious. The vast majority of time, you’ll hear less and less, especially if your hearing loss remains untreated. But things can get really loud when you’re out at a packed restaurant or watching a Michael Bay movie. So loud that it can become uncomfortable. Maybe it’s someone yelling to get your attention or one of the explosions in the newest Transformers film, it just becomes really loud really fast.
And you’ll think: What’s causing this sensitivity to loud noise?
Which can, honestly, put you in an irritable mood. Many people who experience this will feel like they’re going crazy. They have a difficult time identifying how loud things are. You have a sudden sensitivity to loud sounds even as your family and friends are pointing out your very noticeable hearing loss symptoms. How can that be?
The cause of this noise sensitivity is a condition called auditory recruitment. this is how it works:
- There are tiny hairs, known as stereocilia, covering your inner ear. When soundwaves enter into your ears, these hairs vibrate and your brain converts that signal into sounds.
- Age-related “sensorineural” hearing loss takes place as these hairs are damaged. Loud sounds can degrade the hairs over time, and once they are injured, they never heal. Your hearing becomes more muffled as a result. Your level of hearing loss will be increasingly more severe the more hairs that are compromised.
- But this process doesn’t take place evenly. There will be a mixture of healthy and damaged hairs.
- So when the damaged hairs are exposed to a loud sound, the healthy hairs are “recruited” (hence the condition’s name) to send a signal of alarm to your brain. So, suddenly, everything is very loud because all of your stereocilia are firing (just like they would with any other loud noise).
Think about it this way: everything is silent except for the Michael Bay explosion. So the Michael Bay explosion is going to seem louder (and more obnoxious) than it otherwise would!
Sounds a lot like hyperacusis
Those symptoms might sound a little familiar. There is a condition called hyperacusis that has similar symptoms and the two are frequently confused. At first glance, this confusion is understandable. Auditory recruitment is a condition where you have a sensitivity to loud noises, and hyperacusis is a condition in which sounds very abruptly get loud.
But there are a few key differences:
- While hyperacusis has no connection to hearing loss, there is a direct link between auditory recruitment and hearing loss.
- Noises that are normal objectively will sound very loud for someone who has hyperacusis. Think about it this way: When you have auditory recruitment, a shout sounds like a shout; but a whisper can sound like a shout with hyperacusis.
- Hyperacusis causes pain. Literally. Feeling pain is common for people with hyperacusis. With auditory recruitment, that’s typically not the situation.
At the end of the day, auditory recruitment and hyperacusis have some superficially similar symptoms. But they are very different conditions.
Can auditory recruitment be treated?
There isn’t any cure for hearing loss and that’s the bad news. Your hearing will never return once it’s gone. Treating hearing loss early will go a long way to protect against this.
This also is true for auditory recruitment. But here’s the good news, auditory recruitment can successfully be treated. Usually, hearing aids are part of that treatment. And there’s a particular calibration for those hearing aids. That’s why addressing auditory recruitment will nearly always require making an appointment with us.
The precise frequencies of sound that are triggering your auditory recruitment will be determined. Then your hearing aids will be dialed in to decrease the volume of those wavelengths. It’s a really effective treatment.
Successful treatment will only work with certain types of hearing aids. Over-the-counter hearing aids or sound amplifiers, for example, don’t have the required technological sophistication and built-in sensitivity, so they won’t be able to deal with your symptoms.
Contact us for an appointment
If you are suffering from sensitivity to loud sounds, it’s important to realize that you can get relief. You will also get the extra benefit of using a hearing aid to improve your life’s soundscape.
But making an appointment is the starting point. Lots of people who have hearing loss cope with hypersensitivity to loud sound.
It doesn’t need to keep making you miserable.