Hyperacusis is a hearing disorder that affects the way an individual's brain processes certain sounds. Certain frequencies or types of sounds may seem far louder and more unbearable to the affected individual than to others. The disorder is sometimes mild and causes only occasional discomfort. For some patients, though, the symptoms are serious enough to cause seizures or a loss of overall balance. Hyperacusis is very rare, affecting only about one in every fifty thousand individuals. The majority of patients who have it also have ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Though hyperacusis is a hearing disorder, it's not always accompanied by hearing loss. Most individuals aren't born with the condition and instead develop it due to certain health issues or diseases.
Intolerance To Sound
Hyperacusis can cause intolerance to sound. Affected individuals don't often experience intolerance to all sound, but certain pitches and frequencies may be worse than others. Sounds are caused by vibrations through the air. When an individual's ears detect these vibrations, they send impulses along a nerve, and their brain converts the information into sound. Individuals with hyperacusis have a brain that exaggerates or confuses certain vibrations. Even when these individuals are hearing the same sounds and receiving the same vibrations as others, their brain processes them differently. This is what causes hyperacusis patients to experience intolerance to sounds that don't bother others. Because of the intolerance to sound, many individuals with hyperacusis might be tempted to wear earplugs or avoid loud social situations. But while these help in the short-term, they can cause issues in the long term. Staying away from sounds makes them seem louder than if individual's desensitized themselves to them. The main way of treating sound intolerance is by gradually building up the ability to listen to certain sounds over time.
Ear pain can occur with more serious forms of hyperacusis. If individuals experience certain sounds at unexpectedly loud volumes, they may experience the same kind of pain that comes from loud noise. It may feel like an aching, ringing, or vibrating deep inside the eardrum. However, some patients have ear pain that goes deeper than this. Researchers have found while hyperacusis can cause sound intolerance, it can also cause sounds to present as painful stimuli. Rather than just causing discomfort, triggering noises can cause stabbing, throbbing, or burning within the ears severe enough to be debilitating. Scientists have discovered the inner ear appears to have pain fibers that can be triggered by hyperacusis vibrations. Hyperacusis patients who have serious ear pain may struggle to improve, and the auditory exposure therapy may not work for them, since they need to build up more than a mental tolerance. Mild and moderate sounds may be intolerable. Scientists are still studying ways to help with this aspect of hyperacusis.
Panic attacks aren't a necessary symptom for diagnosing hyperacusis, though they are a serious issue that can occur in hyperacusis patients. Exposure to triggering sounds can cause great increases in an individual's stress. When sounds are constantly bombarding individuals at varying volumes and causing potential pain, it's easy to become startled or overstimulated. Many individuals with hyperacusis have panic attacks. In one study, eighty-nine percent of the patients stated they avoid noisy situations because of the stress they cause. Eighty-two percent reported they use hearing protection in situations that don't generally warrant hearing protection, like social situations, riding on public transportation, and driving a car. Fifty-six percent of the respondents met the diagnostic criteria for a minimum of one mental illness, and of the thirty-five patients who met these criteria, twenty-nine of them had an anxiety disorder. Social phobia presented most commonly, followed by generalized anxiety, with the third being agoraphobia. Panic attacks are debilitating episodes of panic and anxiety that present with physical symptoms. Affected individuals may have chest pain, trouble breathing, excessive sweating, and dizziness. A panic attack subsides within ten minutes, but the symptoms are often serious enough to be mistaken for a heart attack.
Tinnitus is the medical term for a ringing or constant pulsing in the ears. It typically presents as high-pitched ringing. Some individuals with tinnitus also experience hearing loss or difficulty hearing others over the ringing, while others have no measured hearing impairment. In a study of hyperacusis patients, seventy-nine percent said they also had overlapping tinnitus. While tinnitus doesn't always indicate hyperacusis, and hyperacusis doesn't always present with tinnitus, the overlap of these conditions is significant. Tinnitus is one of the most common hearing problems, with researchers estimating it affects between fifteen and twenty percent of the population. Rather than being a condition or disease of its own, tinnitus is typically the symptom of an underlying condition. Some of the most common ones are ear injuries, circulatory system disorders, and age-related hearing loss. An individual's hyperacusis may cause tinnitus, or the hyperacusis and tinnitus may share a common cause. Tinnitus usually resolves on its own, but if it doesn't go away within a few days or weeks, or it's accompanied by pain or hearing loss, individuals should talk to a doctor.
Loss Of Balance
Some individuals with hyperacusis can experience a total loss of balance or ability to sit upright when they're exposed to their trigger sounds, which may cause them to slump or to collapse. Typically, the loss of balance will be accompanied by serious ear pain. The most severe cases lead to seizure activity in the brain. There are two main types of hyperacusis: cochlear and vestibular. Cochlear is the type that causes discomfort when hearing sounds, while vestibular is the type that affects balance. An individual with vestibular hyperacusis may also experience discomfort or pain with certain sounds, along with feelings of dizziness and vertigo. Nausea can also be caused by dizziness. The exact cause of vestibular hyperacusis is unknown, but researchers theorize it may be related to nerve damage of the balance system in the inner ear.