Even normal background noise can become overwhelming. For sufferers of the condition, the world can feel like it's perpetually running at 200 percent volume.  Unsurprisingly, people afflicted by hyperacusis have a tendency to withdraw.

Here are a few things you should know about hyperacusis, whether you suspect you may be suffering from it or have a loved one who is.
Woman plugging her ears suffering from hyperacusis

What Causes Hyperacusis?

Hyperacusis is a relatively rare condition, but usually manifests after a victim experiences prolonged exposure to excessive noise without proper hearing protection. Some sufferers may develop the condition as a result of ear sensitizing or psychoactive drugs. 

Injury to the head or ears has also been known to cause the condition, which can also come about due to surgery.  Hyperacusis may also occur in tandem with illnesses such as Lyme Disease, Meniere's Disease, or infections of the inner ear. In some especially rare cases, an individual might be born with hyperacusis.

Hyperacusis Doesn't Mean Your Hearing is Better

A common misconception about hyperacusis is that it means your hearing is hypersensitive. However, people suffering from this impairment cannot hear any better than those who can't. Where they differ from the norm is that they have trouble tolerating what they hear.

Usually, humans can tolerate up to 90 decibels (dB) without feeling discomfort. That's about the level of a hairdryer or kitchen mixer. For people with hyperacusis, this threshold drops significantly, often going down to 60 dB or lower - about the volume of a conversation with a friend.

Treatment can be Difficult, But It's Possible

Treating hyperacusis isn't as simple as putting in earplugs. The silence they create causes the ears to even further amplify the sounds. Instead of alleviating the condition, earplugs can actually worsen it.

Worse still, the more a sufferer tries to avoid sounds that cause them discomfort, the stronger their hypersensitivity becomes.

There are also no drugs or surgeries that cure hyperacusis. That doesn't mean it isn't treatable, mind you. Most hyperacusis treatments are aimed at alleviating the discomfort of a patient and increasing their quality of life.
One such treatment is sound therapy during sleep. While we sleep, our brain and hearing remain active. Therapists can thus use this downtime to implement desensitizing therapy via white noise, subjecting the patient to quiet, pleasant sounds as they sleep. This is usually done without headphones to help the victim also grow more used to ambient noise.
Our brain gradually learns that sounds of this intensity are not threatening, and the volume is slowly increased to further increase tolerance to the sound. Because hyperacusis is often a complication of tinnitus, a condition that manifests as a constant ringing in one's ears, many of the treatments aimed at that illness are also effective at treating hyperacusis. 

Hyperacusis May Be Tied to Common Sounds

A sound doesn't need to be unusual or extraordinary to cause a patient unease. More often, it's common sounds that trigger the condition. Barking dogs, vacuum cleaners, crying children, ringing telephones, and even laughter can cause discomfort and pain.

It's important to note that hyperacusis is distinct from misophonia. While hyperacusis patients suffer from hypersensitivity to everyday sounds, misophonia involves hypersensitivity to very specific and usually repeated sounds such as the ticking of a clock, tipping sounds, dripping taps, and even chewing.

Hyperacusis is Often Accompanied by Mental Illness

Due to the stress that frequently accompanies hyperacusis, it can often trigger mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Per research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, hyperacusis has a high rate of comorbidity with posttraumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and exhaustion. The International Tinnitus Journal also published research in 2017 exploring the close link between Tinnitus, anxiety, and depression.

If you suspect you or a loved one may be suffering from this condition, consult with your ENT or audiologist for a diagnosis.