In this lesson, we’ll explain a rare condition called hypersensitive hearing. We’ll explore the causes and symptoms of this disease. In this lesson, we’ll be focusing on hypersensitivity in children, although the condition also occurs in adults as well.
As an elementary school teacher, you’re frustrated that Julian is always putting his head down. He is only eight, but complains of having a headache all the time. He says its too loud in the classroom, even during group time where you feel like the volume is an acceptable level.His mom says he’s like this at home, too, and even hides in bed at the sound of a dog barking. Worried about Julian, you speak with the nurse.
After an exam, the nurse decides Julian might have hypersensitive hearing, or an oversensitivity to everyday noises, also known as hyperacusis in the medical community. The nurse advises his mom to take Julian to an otolaryngologist, an ear, nose and throat doctor, for an official diagnosis and treatment options.
Hypersensitive Hearing Symptoms
Like Julian, children with hypersensitive hearing experience regular sounds as painfully loud.
For some children, the pain might be subtle and feel like a minor inconvenience, but for others, it can have a severe impact on their everyday lives. Imagine being in immense pain at even the smallest noise, like the dishwasher running, or the vacuum cleaner. The experience feels out of control for children, which can lead to anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Sudden, loud sounds, like a dog barking, an ambulance, or fireworks can be especially traumatizing. Common sounds that can trigger children include:
- Large crowds
- Car horns
- Lawnmowers or leaf blowers
- Loud music
- School bells or yelling, commonly found in the hallway
- Telephones ringing or alarms
- Loud noises on television or from video games
Children may panic, cry, or run out of the room at noise that feels normal to others. Parents may not know what to do or may not understand the reaction of their child. Julian’s mom was fortunate enough that the nurse identified the condition, but other parents might take their child to their pediatrician, and eventually get a referral to the otolaryngologist.
The doctor will usually do a full medical exam and a hearing test to identify sensitivity to noise. Hypersensitive hearing is a rare disorder, affecting only one out of every 50,000 people in the United States.
Hypersensitive Hearing Causes
Julian and other children with hypersensitive hearing aren’t born that way, but rather develop the condition over time. Scientists are unsure of the exact causes of hypersensitive hearing, but they have found some links.The first link involves physical causes. Physical ailments can cause hypersensitive hearing, particularly those that affect the brain or ears.
Trauma to the head, like a concussion, the impact from air bag deployment in a car crash, viral infections of the inner ear, or temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome, a disease where moving the joints that connect the jaw to the skull becomes painful.Other causes of hypersensitive hearing affect the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord). These parts of the body are important in receiving sensations from the ears and processing the signals into what we know as sound. Therefore, some neurological conditions can cause hypersensitive hearing.
There is also a known link with neurological causes. Imagine being out for a walk in the woods. Your child is complaining about the heat, so you allow them to wear shorts. You know there are insects around, but you figure they’re probably harmless. However, when you get home, your child’s legs are covered in small bugs called ticks.
Ticks can burrow into the skin, making them very difficult to remove and can also cause lyme disease. Lyme disease, an infection caused by the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, is transmitted by ticks and can also cause hypersensitive hearing in children. The bacteria infects many parts of the body, and if left untreated, can spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system, where it can cause hypersensitive hearing.Drugs that affect the nervous system, like the antidepressants Prozac and Zoloft, can also cause hypersensitive hearing. Finally, other genetic diseases that affect the brain, like Tay Sachs, autism, or multiple sclerosis, also have been associated with hypersensitive hearing.
After Julian receives the diagnosis of hypersensitive hearing, his mom clearly wants to know how to help him. Unfortunately, the doctor doesn’t have an easy answer, and there is no treatment or medication to help Julian yet. Since hypersensitive hearing can create panic and anxiety, the doctor recommends counseling for Julian to manage his fear around loud sounds. This will help him stay calm and focused during a stressful event.
There is also a strategy called cognitive behavior counseling, where patients are exposed to the most stressful sounds on a recording for a short period of time each day. Although this sounds counter-intuitive, the doctor explains to his mother that it will help Julian adjust to the sounds and eventually make them less painful to experience.
Hypersensitive hearing is a condition where normal noises become painful to the patient.
In children, the first signs are usually a fearful or painful response to sounds in the house or in school, like a dog barking, a school bell, or noisy classmates. The hypersensitivity can also cause panic and anxiety if the child doesn’t understand why the sounds are so painful and feels as though they can’t get away from them.If hypersensitive hearing is suspected, the child will be taken to an otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor) who can diagnose the condition. Hypersensitive hearing can be caused by physical or neurological damage to the ears or brain, such as drugs, genetic disorders, or infections.
Treatments include counseling to decrease anxiety and cognitive behavior counseling, which slowly adjusts children to unpleasant noises.