When Sound Sensitivities Complicate Hearing Loss

Such a contradiction: Not hearing well and understanding even less, yet being overly sensitive to sound? How can this be? Once more, we are reminded that damaged hearing systems do not behave in a logical fashion.

Shortly after my sudden, severe hearing-loss the sounds of everyday life turned into unexpected challenges. What never bothered me before became overwhelming. Sudden loud sounds, such as the ringing of the doorbell or telephone were intolerable and painful. Walks in the neighborhood became torture events.

Recruitment and Hyperacusis make for a loud world!

Considering my case, the doctor was not surprised. He felt that I might deal with hearing loss related sound sensitivity issues. Recruitment – as I had severe damage to the inner ear and maybe also Hyperacusis due to hearing nerve injury.

Although these are two different situations, they have the same effect on the patient: The world becomes intolerably loud! Either one of them is a challenge!

It is said that Recruitment is the result of damage to the outer hearing cells in the cochlea of the inner ear. These cells help modulate or adjust sound. Recruitment is usually felt as a rapid escalation of sound volume. It is almost as if the ear has lost its natural sound buffering ability. And it has. Recruitment is known as a “peripheral” problem due to cochlear dysfunction. It is more common than hyperacusis.

Hyperacusis is not well understood. It involves the brain and is said to be “central” in nature. For various reasons, people are supersensitive to everyday sounds. Although hyperacusis is also associated with other conditions, such as Ménière’s Disease and migraines, people with sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus can also be affected.

My doctor felt that nerve damage could be causing over-excitement in the brain hearing pathways. In a way, the brain’s volume dial immediately went to “high” with the least amount of sound exposure.     

He mentioned that the ear, the nerve, and the brain got a massive shock during my sudden hearing loss disaster. The hope was that time would be on my side. Things might very well improve as I gradually “healed.” Although there was no cure for any of my challenges, life would become a lot easier.  

I was warned that I absolutely could not isolate myself from sound. By overusing hearing protection, I would become a sound-intolerant recluse. That expression shocked me. Such an undesirable visual! The treatment choices were professional care with CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – and/or Sound Therapy. He felt that sound therapy could also help make tinnitus more tolerable. He was correct.

After this visit, I got a clear picture of what had gone wrong and how it could be helped.  Although every case is different and professional care is the way to go, I decided to study up and to try my hand at sound desensitization. I had to report back regularly on my condition.

I never used ear plugs at home again. I became acquainted with meditation and nature tunes. I listened through noise-reducing headphones as they gave me the impression that I heard in stereo. This eased the transition from soft sound exposures to gradually louder volumes etc. Tapering up and down!! No lyrics! Deep breaths! Defervesce! It was my choice but it was hard work.

After a while, I did not need the headphones anymore. I even went outside without earplugs. Although the doorbell is still an issue, it is a lot better. I even went back to listening to old favorites – in small doses at first, gradually increasing time and volume. Over time, my relationship with sound has greatly improved. It will never be the way it was – or “normal.” It is simply “different.”   

In the end…

Hearing loss that is complicated by sound sensitivities can become seriously life-limiting. Act on the warning signs and get a professional opinion. There will always be noise and sound around us. It’s life! Although there might not be a cure, there is help.


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