Hyperacusis is a medical term used to describe a condition defined by a collapse of tolerance to normal environmental sounds. A hypersensitivity causing extreme discomfort and even pain in the ears brought on by everyday sounds that are quite tolerable to those with normal hearing. Noises as diverse and innocuous as the sound of a washing machine, a dog barking, or even the sound of dishes in the kitchen sink can be excruciating for the hyperacusis sufferer.
In common with other dysfunctions associated with the ear, hyperacusis is often accompanied by symptoms of hearing loss, dizziness, and tinnitus, leading to anxiety and depression.
Being a subjective phenomenon and thereby not something that can be measured or studied, no certain cure is available for Hyperacusis.
As with tinnitus and Meniere's disease, the cause of hyperacusis is to a degree a matter of conjecture. Hyperacusis may follow a blow to the head or exposure to very loud noise or be associated with an autoimmune disorder such as an allergy or even some types of arthritis. Commonly though, the onset is sudden and inexplicable.
The effect of the condition is to live in a world in which there is a limited range of sound and no volume control. Certain sounds are stuck on full volume whilst others are inaudible. The hearing system loses its ability to dampen one sound and focus on another. As with tinnitus and Meniere's Disease, there is no hiding place.
A natural reaction to the distress caused by apparently very loud sounds is to resort to earplugs. Wearing earplugs can sometimes help but it does interfere with everyday life much as being deaf does. Also, people suffering from hyperacusis commonly suffer from tinnitus as well. Isolating the ears from external sound will inevitably exacerbate the symptoms of tinnitus by effectively turning up the volume of the sounds of that tinnitus inside the head.
Far from hiding from noise, the accepted treatment for hyperacusis involves the delivery of what is known as broadband pink noise to the hearing system.
This sound which resembles a rushing noise is used to improve a person’s tolerance to normal exposure to sound by reducing the sensitivity of the ear. Typically this is done using a white noise generator worn in the ear.
This volume-controlled device resembling an earplug sits in the ear and emits the gentle pink noise continuously. For most people who wear one of these white noise generators throughout the day, there is a considerable improvement in hearing sensitivity after a year to eighteen months.
The effectiveness of this treatment is increased considerably where a program of stress reduction and education is used to reduce the anxiety associated with the condition.
There are on the market a number of recordings of broadband pink noise which can be purchased and played through a normal audio playing device. These are a good back up to a personal noise generator used in the car or played through the night alongside the bed. Listening to this sound is not dissimilar to hearing quiet stress-reducing music and will give this added benefit to the hyperacusis patient.