Can Hearing Loss Cause Sensitivity 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 know that getting their attention can be… a struggle. Their name is the first thing you try saying. “Greg”, you say, but you used a standard, indoor volume level, so you get nothing. You try saying Greg’s name a little louder and still nothing. So finally, you shout.

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

It’s not just stubbornness and irritability that create this interaction. Individuals with hearing loss often report hypersensitivity to loud sound. And this sensitivity to loud noises can help explain why Greg can’t hear his name at a normal volume but gets cranky when you shout at him.

Can hearing loss make loud sounds even worse?

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

And you’ll wonder why you have this sensitivity to loud noise.

Which can also make you feel a bit cranky, honestly. Many individuals will feel like they’re going mad when they experience this. They have a difficult 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 sound sensitivity is a condition called auditory recruitment. It works like this:

  • The inside of your ears are covered with tiny hairs called stereocilia. When soundwaves enter your ears, these hairs resonate and your brain translates that signal into sounds.
  • Age-related “sensorineural” hearing loss takes place as these hairs are damaged. Over time, these little hairs are permanently damaged by repeated exposure to loud sounds. Your hearing becomes more muffled as a result. The more damaged hairs you have, the less you’re able to hear.
  • But this process doesn’t occur evenly. There will be a mixture of healthy and damaged hairs.
  • So when the damaged hairs are exposed to a loud sound, the healthy hairs are “recruited” (thus the condition’s name) to send a signal of alarm to your brain. So, all of a sudden, everything is really 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 would otherwise!

Isn’t that exactly like hyperacusis?

You may think that these symptoms sound a little familiar. That’s probably because they’re often confused with a condition known as hyperacusis. That confusion is, at first, understandable. Auditory recruitment is a condition where you have a sensitivity to loud noises, and hyperacusis is a condition in which sounds very abruptly get loud.

But here are a few significant differences:

  • Hyperacusis is not directly related to hearing loss. Auditory recruitment certainly is.
  • When you’re dealing with hyperacusis, noises that are at an objectively ordinary volume seem extremely loud to you. Think about it like this: When you have auditory recruitment, a shout sounds like a shout; but a whisper could sound like a shout for those who have hyperacusis.
  • Hyperacusis comes with pain. Literally. Feeling pain is common for individuals with hyperacusis. With auditory recruitment, that’s normally not the situation.

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

Is there any treatment for audio recruitment?

There’s no 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 applies to auditory recruitment. Luckily, there are ways to successfully treat auditory recruitment. In most situations, that treatment will include hearing aids. And those hearing aids have to be specifically calibrated. So it will be necessary to make an appointment with us.

We’ll be able to determine the specific wavelengths of sound that are causing your auditory recruitment symptoms. Then your hearing aids will be dialed in to reduce the volume of those wavelengths. It’s a really effective treatment.

Only certain types of hearing aid will be effective. The symptoms can’t be managed with over-the-counter hearing devices because they lack the technological sophistication.

Contact us for an appointment

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

But making an appointment is the first step. Many 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.