Hyperacusis: When Hearing Hurts

For George Rue, certain everyday sounds are unbearable.

"Squeaky door hinges, any type of fork on a plate. It's like microscopic needles shooting into my eardrums," he explained.

Linda Opperman has trouble with louder noises.

"I won't say painful, it's not painful but it was just- made me feel like I had to cover my ears," she said.

The discomfort level is different, but Rue and Opperman suffer from the same thing.  It's called Hyperacusis.

"Basically, if you think of it "hyper" means excessive and "acusis" means sound. So, it's an excessive response to sound," explained Richard Tyler, PhD, who researches Hyperacusis at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

And that excessive response can range from sensitivity, to even physical pain. In extreme cases, the condition can lead to depression and anxiety, or for some patients.

"They can essentially become hermits or shut in because they cannot tolerate even the simplest sound," said Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon Dr. Sujana Chandrasekhar, who's with the New York Head & Neck Institute.

Although it's difficult to put a firm number on how many people have the condition, Chandresekhar says most studies indicate about 8% of the population has Hyperacusis, and it can occur at any age.   

Some causes include exposure to loud noise, certain inflammatory or infectious diseases and sometimes, there is no known cause.

"Most of us think it's a brain perception problem where the brain is hyper vigilant and hyper sensitive to sounds.  So, research is being done to try to figure out the brain pathways that control Hyperacusis," Chandrasekhar said.

Currently, treatment could include:

  • Using filtered ear plugs to protect against loud sounds
  • Wearing a specially programmed hearing aid 
  • Doing sound therapy to help re-train the brain
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy to work on reducing the anxiety response to sound 

"There is hope for the patients that there is help out there, and I think that with the research that's coming out we'll be seeing more and more approaches," said Audiologist Joanna Roufos, with Manhattan Audiology.

"For those suffers who haven't found an approach that helps them yet, it's going to take some time for us to get the research that will give them answers," added Hyperacusis Research Founder & President Bryan Pollard.

People with Hyperacusis often also have hearing loss or tinnitus, which is a condition that causes ringing in the ears. So often, all issues need to be addressed.  Experts say current Hyperacusis treatment options take about five to eight months, but not everyone we were in touch with has found relief.