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

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

If you have a partner with untreated hearing loss, you appreciate that getting their attention can be… a problem. Their name is the first thing you try saying. You say “Greg”, but you get no answer because you used an inside volume level. You try saying Greg’s name a little louder and still nothing. So finally, you shout.

And that’s when Greg spins around with absolutely no awareness of his comedic timing and says crossly, “why are you shouting?”

This situation isn’t the result of stubbornness or irritability. People with hearing loss often 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 talk to him at a normal volume.

Can loud sounds seem louder with hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be a peculiar thing. The vast majority of time, you’ll hear less and less, especially if your hearing loss goes unaddressed. But things can get very loud when you’re out at a packed restaurant or watching a Michael Bay movie. Uncomfortably loud. Maybe it’s someone shouting to get your attention or one of the explosions in the newest Transformers movie, it just gets really loud really fast.

And you’ll think: What’s causing this sensitivity to loud noise?

Which can, honestly, put you in a cranky mood. Many people who notice this will feel like they’re going crazy. They have a hard time figuring out how loud things are. You have a sudden sensitivity to loud sounds even as your family and friends are pointing out your very noticeable hearing loss symptoms. How is that possible?

Auditory recruitment

The cause of this sound sensitivity is a condition called auditory recruitment. this is how it works:

  • There are little hairs, known as stereocilia, that cover the inside of your ear. When soundwaves enter your ears, these hairs resonate and your brain converts that signal into sounds.
  • Age-related “sensorineural” hearing loss happens as these hairs deteriorate. Over time, these delicate hairs are permanently damaged by frequent exposure to loud sounds. Your hearing becomes duller as a result. The more damaged hairs you have, the less you can hear.
  • But this isn’t an evenly occurring process. There is always some combination of damaged hairs and healthy hairs.
  • So when the damaged hairs are exposed to a loud sound, the healthy hairs are “recruited” (hence the condition’s name) to send a message of alarm to your brain. So, suddenly, everything is really loud because all of your stereocilia are firing (just like they would with any other loud noise).

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

Sounds a lot like hyperacusis

You might think that these symptoms sound a bit familiar. That’s probably because they’re often confused with a condition called hyperacusis. When you first compare them, this confusion is easy to understand. Both conditions can make sounds very loud suddenly.

But here are a few considerable differences:

  • Hyperacusis is not directly related to hearing loss. Auditory recruitment definitely is.
  • When you’re dealing with hyperacusis, noises that are at an objectively normal volume seem really loud to you. Think about it like this: A shout will still sound like a shout with auditory recruitment; but with hyperacusis, a whisper could sound like a shout.
  • Hyperacusis causes pain. Literally. Most individuals who experience hyperacusis report feelings of pain. With auditory recruitment, that’s usually not the case.

Overall, auditory recruitment and hyperacusis have some superficially similar symptoms. But they are quite different conditions.

Can auditory recruitment be treated?

The bad news is that there’s no cure for hearing loss. Once your hearing is gone, it’s gone. Treating hearing loss early will go a long way to prevent this.

The same goes for auditory recruitment. But here’s the good news, auditory recruitment can successfully be treated. Normally, hearing aids are part of that treatment. And those hearing aids need to be specially calibrated. That’s why treating auditory recruitment will almost always require scheduling an appointment with us.

The precise frequencies of sound that are causing your auditory recruitment will be identified. Your hearing aids can then be adjusted to reduce that wavelength of sound. It’s sort of like magic, but it’s using science and technology (so, not really like magic at all, but it works really effectively is what we’re trying to communicate here).

Only certain types of hearing aid will be effective. The symptoms can’t be addressed 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 get relief from your sensitivity to loud noise. You will also get the additional benefit of using a hearing aid to enhance your life’s soundscape.

But scheduling an appointment is the starting point. This hypersensitivity is a normal part of the hearing loss process, it happens to many, many 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.