Hearing problems: sensitivity and pain in ears

The technical term for sensitivity and pain in the ears

There is a medical term for sensitivity and pain caused by sound and associated with deafness. It is hearing recruitment or just recruitment. The medical term hyperacusis describes a similar condition when sounds of everyday life are intrusively loud, uncomfortable and/or painful, but it is not associated with deafness*.

Quick ways to recognise someone with hearing sensitivity

A sure sign of sensitivity to sound is how the person concerned uses a television controller (television remote). Their fingers seldom stray far from the volume control which gets adjusted constantly as the volume or pitch changes. (I have worn out several controllers over the years, way before the television itself needed replacing - see my hearing.)

Also people with sensitivity to sound wince with pain at certain sounds, and onlookers may not recognise this for what it is, thinking that it is an attempt to be amusing.

How to understand what the pain of sound sensitivity is like

pain in ears

Someone with normal hearing can get an idea of what the pain of sensitive hearing is like from an analogy with sight. Almost certainly at some time or another a really strong light has unexpectedly been shone into their eyes, like when the sun reflects from a driving mirror as the car turns a corner. It produces a searing pain behind the eyes from which they immediately recoil. Hearing recruitment is similar but felt in the ears and, for me and others like me, it is many orders of magnitude stronger.

To continue the analogy, just as turning up the brightness of lighting can cause headaches and discomfort. So turning up the volume of sound can cause pain and distress.

Sound sensitivity can be so severe that the person concerned collapses in shock. This is what happens to me on occasions.

Medical treatment for severe sensitivity to sound

The problem of severe sensitivity to sound does not seem to have received much effective attention from medical researchers. One suggestion given to me from a top hearing-support establishment was to progressively acclimatise myself to increasingly louder sounds, but I didn't attempt to do so because every time I feel severe pain from sound, I seem to lose just a little more of my ability to hear. This seems logical, since exposure to loud sound is a recognised cause of deafness.

However, medical treatment is improving, and I shall shortly be adding a page on my experiences of it.

Towards coping with sensitivity to sound

For anyone who experiences severe sensitivity to sound, coping with it has to be a way of life. My ear protection is always with me, ready to be used at a moment's notice.

Obviously a balance has to be struck between using ear protection and being able to listen to what people are saying. This is not easy: it can be very upsetting to feel forced to wear hearing protection while a conversation is going on that one wants to be part of.

Occasionally of course one is caught unawares by a sudden loud sound, with very unpleasant results - see my own hearing problems. What is most important is the understanding and support of the people around.

Support for hyperacusis does exist. Although the advice is really useful, by no means all of it applies to people who also have hearing loss. The distinction that it makes between hyperacusis and recruitment fits my own experience perfectly - that the pain lies in the range of the hearing loss.

How to help someone with sensitive hearing

Click here for How to help someone with sensitive hearing.

Click here for my review of earplugs and other hearing protection.


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* This difference between hearing recruitment and hyperacusis was well recognised some years ago and it seemed to fit my perfectly. So I like to continue to think in terms of it. However, the modern medical view among the audiologists who have worked with me seems to be that there is no difference and that the term hyperacusis covers both conditions and need to be treated accordingly.



Disclaimer: The information on this site is for a lay audience and I cannot be responsible for errors or omissions. The views, strategies, advice and suggestions etc are based on my personal experience and are not necessarily appropriate for anyone else. They should, hopefully, stimulate individuals to develop their own strategies.