Can Hearing Loss Make You Sensitive to Loud Sounds?

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

If you have a partner with untreated hearing loss, you realize that getting their attention can be… a challenge. First, you try to say their name. “Greg”, you say, but you used a regular, indoor volume level, so you get no reply. 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 grouchily asks what you’re shouting for.

It’s not just stubbornness and irritability that create this interaction. Hypersensitivity to loud sound is frequently documented in those with hearing loss. So it seems logical that Greg gets cranky when you shout his name after he continually fails to hear you when you speak to him at a normal volume.

Can hearing loss make loud sounds worse?

So, hearing loss is kind of peculiar. Typical, hearing loss will cause your hearing to diminish, especially if it goes untreated. But things can get very loud when you’re out at a packed restaurant or watching a Michael Bay movie. So loud that it can get uncomfortable. Maybe it’s somebody yelling to get your attention or one of the explosions in the latest Transformers movie, it just becomes really loud really fast.

And you’ll wonder why you’re so sensitive to loud noise.

Which can, honestly, put you in an irritable mood. Many individuals who experience this will feel like they’re going crazy. They have a difficult time identifying 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 sound sensitivity is a condition called auditory recruitment. Here’s how it works:

  • The interior of your ears are covered with tiny hairs called stereocilia. These hairs resonate when soundwaves enter your ears and this vibration is then converted to sounds by your brain.
  • Age-related “sensorineural” hearing loss occurs as these hairs are damaged. Loud sounds can degrade the hairs over time, and once they are injured, they are unable to heal. Consequently, your hearing becomes less sensitive. The more compromised hairs you have, the less you can hear.
  • But this process doesn’t happen evenly. There will be a combination of healthy and damaged hairs.
  • So when you hear a loud sound, the damaged hairs “recruit” the healthy hairs (thus the name of the condition) to send a warning message to your brain. All of a sudden, all of the stereocilia fire, and everything becomes really loud.

Think about it this way: everything is silent except for the Michael Bay explosion. So the Michael Bay explosion will seem louder (and more obnoxious) than it otherwise would!

Sounds a lot like hyperacusis

You might think that these symptoms sound a little familiar. There is a condition known as hyperacusis that has comparable symptoms and the two are frequently confused. At first glance, this confusion is understandable. Auditory recruitment is a condition where you have a sensitivity to loud noises, and hyperacusis is a condition where sounds very suddenly get loud.

But there are a few key differences:

  • Hyperacusis isn’t directly caused by hearing loss. Auditory recruitment absolutely is.
  • Noises that are normal objectively will sound really loud for somebody who has hyperacusis. Think about it this way: 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. Feeling pain is common for individuals with hyperacusis. That’s not necessarily the case with auditory recruitment.

Overall, auditory recruitment and hyperacusis have some superficially similar symptoms. But they aren’t the same condition.

Can auditory recruitment be treated?

Here’s the bad news, there’s no cure for hearing loss. Once your hearing is gone, it’s gone. Treatment of hearing loss can largely prevent this.

The same is true of auditory recruitment. But here’s the good news, auditory recruitment can successfully be treated. In most situations, that treatment will include hearing aids. And there’s a particular calibration for those hearing aids. That’s why addressing auditory recruitment will nearly always require scheduling an appointment with us.

We’ll be able to determine the particular wavelengths of sound that are responsible for your auditory recruitment symptoms. Then your hearing aids will be dialed in to decrease the volume of those wavelengths. It’s a very effective treatment.

Effective treatment will only work with specific types of hearing aids. Over-the-counter hearing aids or sound amplifiers, for example, don’t have the necessary technological sophistication and built-in sensitivity, so they won’t be able to address your symptoms.

Contact us for an appointment

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

But scheduling an appointment is the starting point. Lots of people who have hearing loss cope with hypersensitivity to loud noise.

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.