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. “Greg”, you say, but you used a normal, indoor volume level, so you get no reply. You try saying Greg’s name a little louder and still no reply. So finally, you shout.

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

It’s not just stubbornness and impatience that create this interaction. Hypersensitivity to loud sound is often documented in those with hearing loss. And this sensitivity to loud noises can help explain why Greg can’t hear his name at a normal volume but gets aggravated when you shout at him.

Can hearing loss make loud sounds even worse?

Hearing loss can be a strange thing. The vast majority of time, you’ll hear less and less, especially if your hearing loss remains untreated. But things can get really loud when you’re out at a crowded restaurant or watching a Michael Bay movie. Uncomfortably loud. Maybe the movie gets really loud all of a sudden or someone is yelling to get your attention.

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

Which can, truthfully, put you in a cranky mood. Many individuals will feel like they’re going mad when they notice this. They have a hard time determining 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. How can that be?

Auditory recruitment

A condition called auditory recruitment can cause these symptoms. this is how it works:

  • The inside of your ears are covered in tiny hairs called stereocilia. When soundwaves enter into your ears, these hairs resonate and your brain translates that signal into sounds.
  • Deterioration of these hairs is what produces age-related sensorineural hearing loss. Loud sounds can degrade the hairs over time, and once they are damaged, they are unable to heal. Your hearing becomes duller as a result. The more compromised hairs you have, the less you can hear.
  • But this is not an evenly occurring process. There is always some mixture of damaged and healthy hairs.
  • So when you hear a loud sound, the impaired hairs “recruit” the healthy hairs (hence the name of the condition) to send a warning message to your brain. So, all of a sudden, everything gets very loud because all of your stereocilia are firing (just as they would with any other loud noise).

Think about it like this: everything is quiet except for the Michael Bay explosion. So the Michael Bay explosion is going to seem louder (and more obnoxious) than it otherwise would!

Isn’t that the same as hyperacusis?

You may think that these symptoms sound a little familiar. That’s most likely because they’re often confused with a condition known as hyperacusis. At first glance, this confusion is easy to understand. Both conditions can cause sounds to get really loud all of a sudden.

But here are a few considerable differences:

  • While hyperacusis has no connection to hearing loss, there is a direct link between auditory recruitment and hearing loss.
  • When you have hyperacusis, noises that are at an objectively ordinary volume seem extremely loud to you. Think about it this way: 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 is painful. Literally. Feeling pain is common for people with hyperacusis. With auditory recruitment, that’s usually not the case.

It’s true that hyperacusis and auditory recruitment have some similar symptoms. But they are entirely different conditions.

Can auditory recruitment be managed?

There isn’t any cure for hearing loss and that’s the bad news. Your hearing will never return once it goes. Treatment of hearing loss can largely prevent this.

This also is true for auditory recruitment. Fortunately, there are ways to successfully treat auditory recruitment. Usually, hearing aids are part of that treatment. And those hearing aids have to be specifically calibrated. That’s why treating auditory recruitment will almost always require scheduling an appointment with us.

The exact frequencies of sound that are triggering your auditory recruitment will be determined. Then your hearing aids will be dialed in to reduce the volume of those wavelengths. It’s a very effective treatment.

Effective treatment can only work with specific 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

If you are experiencing sensitivity to loud sounds, it’s important to recognize that you can find relief. The bonus is that your new hearing aid will make everything sound clearer.

But it all begins by scheduling an appointment. Lots of people who have hearing loss cope with hypersensitivity to loud sound.

It doesn’t need to keep making you miserable.

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.