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Health

A Rare Hearing Disorder Can Make Sounds Loud and Uncomfortable

Hyperacusis is a rare condition that makes everyday sounds unbearable. Find out who is at risk and how it is treated.

By Avery HurtJun 6, 2024 1:00 PM
woman plugging her ears
(Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

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The world is rich with sound — birdsong, rainfall, children playing in a park, traffic on a busy street, a crowd cheering at a sporting event. But for some people, rather than enriching life, sound can make life nigh unbearable.

A condition called hyperacusis, sometimes called sound sensitivity, is a rare hearing disorder in which sounds that typically don’t bother most people seem particularly loud and uncomfortable. Some common sounds that are unbearable to people with hyperacusis are water running in a sink and people having a conversation.

To people without the condition, the sound of pages being turned in a book or the humming of a refrigerator may go unnoticed, but for people who suffer from hyperacusis, these same sounds seem intolerably loud.


Read More: Misophonia, Or Why I Hate the Sound of Chewing Salad


Sensitivity to Sound

While there’s not much reliable data on how many people suffer from hyperacusis, research has shown that the condition is more common in musicians and people in the music industry (particularly rock and pop music that is heavily amplified), people with occupational exposure to loud noise, migraineurs, and people with tinnitus. Hyperacusis is also associated with some neuropsychiatric conditions, such as PTSD and anxiety disorders.

Some cases of hyperacusis are worse than others, but for many people, the disorder is so bad they rarely leave home. The clatter and chatter in a crowded restaurant are intolerable. Movie theaters are out of the question. As you might imagine, this can have profound effects on mental health and well-being. 

Avoiding noise can lead to social isolation, which is a risk factor for depression. One study found that, compared with the general population, people with hyperacusis were at higher risk of suicide or suicidal ideation.


Read More: What Is Tinnitus: It's Causes, Effects and Brain Connections


Treatment for Hyperacusis

Fortunately, there is help. Richard S. Tyler, professor of otolaryngology at the University of Iowa, has studied hyperacusis for many years and regularly treats patients with the disorder. He points out that treatments vary depending on the severity of the condition and the type of sound that causes the most discomfort. However, he describes two methods that he has found to be successful.

In the first, he uses an approach not unlike the gradual exposure therapy used to treat phobias. He describes an example in which the sound of dishes being washed seems unbearably loud. The first step is to make a recording of someone washing dishes. 

Then, while sitting comfortably and relaxed, the patient plays the recording at a very low level. Over time — Tyler says this can be several weeks or even months — the patient very gradually increases the sound. Then, also very gradually, the patient moves to the kitchen, where they take control of the dishes at whatever level of sound they are comfortable with. Eventually, they let someone else wash the dishes. “The idea,” says Tyler, “is to get the auditory system in your brain used to those types of noises.”

Another method Tyler has had success with is using hearing aids not to amplify sound but to deaden it. Hearing aids with closed ear molds serve as earplugs. Tyler programs the hearing aids to reduce the maximum level of sound. Over the next few weeks or months, he gradually increases the maximum level.

Counseling is typically a part of the treatment plan for hyperacusis, says Tyler. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has helped some patients cope with the difficulties of living with this condition. Tyler also advises patients with the disorder to get sufficient sleep by installing a white noise machine in their bedroom set at a level they’re comfortable with and making sure windows are closed to block out sudden noises such as sirens or barking dogs. 


Read More: From Clowns to Buttons, These Weird Phobias Afflict Many People


Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:


Avery Hurt is a freelance science journalist. In addition to writing for Discover, she writes regularly for a variety of outlets, both print and online, including National Geographic, Science News Explores, Medscape, and WebMD. She’s the author of "Bullet With Your Name on It: What You Will Probably Die From and What You Can Do About It," Clerisy Press 2007, as well as several books for young readers. Avery got her start in journalism while attending university, writing for the school newspaper and editing the student non-fiction magazine. Though she writes about all areas of science, she is particularly interested in neuroscience, the science of consciousness, and AI–interests she developed while earning a degree in philosophy.

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