Can Sensitivity to Loud Sound be a Symptom of Hearing Loss?

A young woman by the window bothered by the loud construction work outside.

You know that it can be difficult to get your partner’s attention if they have untreated hearing loss. Their name is the first thing you try saying. You say “Greg”, but you get no answer because you used an indoor volume level. You try raising your volume and saying Greg’s name again but he still doesn’t hear you. So you resort to shouting.

Well this time Greg hears you and crossly asks what you’re shouting for.

It’s not just stubbornness and impatience that cause this situation. Individuals with hearing loss frequently report hypersensitivity to loud sound. So it seems logical that Greg gets cranky when you shout his name after he repeatedly fails to hear you when you speak to him at a normal volume.

Can loud sounds seem louder with hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be a strange thing. The vast majority of time, you’ll hear less and less, particularly if your hearing loss goes unaddressed. But things can get very loud when you’re out at a crowded restaurant or watching a Michael Bay movie. So loud that it can get uncomfortable. Maybe the movie gets really loud all of a sudden or somebody is yelling to get your attention.

And you’ll think: Why am I so sensitive to loud noise?

Which can, honestly, put you in an irritable mood. Many individuals will feel like they’re going mad when they notice this. They have a hard time figuring out how loud things are. You have a sudden sensitivity to loud sounds even as your friends and family are pointing out your very obvious hearing loss symptoms. It feels like a contradiction.

Auditory recruitment

The cause of this noise sensitivity is a condition known as auditory recruitment. Here’s how it works:

  • The interior of your ears are covered with tiny hairs called stereocilia. When soundwaves enter into your ears, these hairs resonate and your brain translates that signal into sounds.
  • Age-related “sensorineural” hearing loss occurs as these hairs are damaged. Loud sounds can damage the hairs over time, and once they are injured, they never heal. Consequently, your hearing becomes less sensitive. The more compromised hairs you have, the less you’re able to hear.
  • But this isn’t an evenly occurring process. There is always some combination of damaged and healthy hairs.
  • So when the impaired hairs are exposed to a loud noise, the healthy hairs are “recruited” (thus the condition’s name) to send a signal of alarm to your brain. All of a sudden, all of the stereocilia fire, and everything gets really loud.

Think about it like this: everything is silent except for the Michael Bay explosion. So it’s going to seem louder, when that Michael Bay explosion occurs, than it normally would.

Sounds a lot like hyperacusis

Those symptoms may sound a little familiar. That’s likely because they’re frequently confused with a condition called hyperacusis. That conflation is, at first, understandable. Auditory recruitment is a condition in which you have a sensitivity to loud noises, and hyperacusis is a condition in which sounds very suddenly get loud.

But there are some key differences:

  • While hyperacusis has no link to hearing loss, there is a direct link between auditory recruitment and hearing loss.
  • Noises that are normal objectively will sound very loud for somebody who has hyperacusis. Think about it like this: A shout will still sound like a shout when you have auditory recruitment; but when you have hyperacusis, a whisper could sound like a shout.
  • Hyperacusis causes pain. Literally. Most individuals who experience hyperacusis report feeling pain. That’s not necessarily the situation with auditory recruitment.

It’s true that hyperacusis and auditory recruitment have some similar symptoms. But they are not the same condition.

Can auditory recruitment be managed?

There isn’t any cure for hearing loss and that’s the bad news. Once your hearing is gone, it’s gone. Addressing hearing loss early will go a long way to protect against this.

The same is true of auditory recruitment. But here’s the good news, auditory recruitment can successfully be treated. Typically, hearing aids are at the center of that treatment. And those hearing aids need to be specially calibrated. So it will be necessary to schedule an appointment with us.

We’ll be able to identify the particular wavelengths of sound that are responsible for your auditory recruitment symptoms. Your hearing aids can then be adjusted to diminish that wavelength of sound. It’s sort of like magic, only it’s using science and technology (so, not really like magic at all, but it works really well is what we’re trying to convey here).

Effective treatment can only work with certain types of hearing aids. The symptoms can’t be managed with over-the-counter hearing devices because they lack the technological sophistication.

Reach out to us for an appointment

It’s essential that you know that you can find relief from your sensitivity to loud sound. The bonus is that your new hearing aid will make everything sound clearer.

But making an appointment is the first step. This hypersensitivity is a natural part of the hearing loss process, it happens to lots and lots of people.

You can get help so call us.

The site information is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. To receive personalized advice or treatment, schedule an appointment.