If you’ve never heard of the term ‘hyperacusis,’ it refers to a condition in which a person’s normal tolerance to sounds in their everyday environment is severely diminished. With hyperacusis, the sound of a car braking at a traffic light can sound like a horrible screech, and a group of people applauding a speaker can sound like a huge thunderclap in a storm. In short, it’s as though someone was toying with the volume control of Life, and left it stuck on the highest setting – just about everything sounds extremely loud.

On the flip side, someone who has hyperacusis usually has lost most of the dynamic range generally associated with hearing, which means there isn’t much difference in the loudness of various sounds. For example, an actual explosion might sound very much like a book dropping off the edge of a table.

Most hyperacusis patients have a sensation of inner ear pain or a feeling of pressure in the ears which is similar to what you might feel when making a rapid descent in a commercial jetliner. On an airplane, this feeling can be easily overcome by yawning or chewing gum, but a hyperacusis patient feels this ear pressure all the time. This constant discomfort can have an enormous impact on a person’s life, affecting their job as well as their home life and relationships.

For someone with hyperacusis, operating a lawn mower, listening to the radio in the car, or running a vacuum cleaner at home may not be possible. This condition has less to do with volume, and more to do with particular sound frequencies, which can make attempts to muffle out noise entirely futile as well.

What can be done to help people who have hyperacusis?

Noise Has Color

The pink spectrum of noise is the one which most closely matches the broad range of sounds which we hear in our normal environment. That’s why treatment for patients with hyperacusis generally involves building up a tolerance to pink noise, rather than white noise, which includes higher frequencies. The higher frequencies are the ones most troubling for hyperacusis patients, so trying to build a tolerance to white noise is not nearly as effective an approach.

The goal of any program of sound therapy is to slowly and incrementally build up a tolerance to noise, but this can be a very frustrating and difficult experience for someone with hyperacusis. Many patients find that they just don’t have the patience to undergo this kind of slow therapy, and search for something that will produce faster, less uncomfortable results. If nothing helps, a patient may have few options other than to wear earplugs a majority of the time during waking hours.

A man with hyperacusis sits with headphones on, listening to pink noise at the doctor's office.

It’s important to find the right kind of sound therapy for your hyperacusis, and many patients have found that pink noise has helped them.

How Sound Therapy Works

The whole idea of sound therapy is to get a person re-familiarized and tolerant of the noises which populate our day-to-day world. Sounds are delivered to the ears by one of the several methods, like listening to CDs with recorded everyday sounds. But this can be an inconvenient kind of session for the hyperacusis patient because therapy sessions should last at least two hours per day, and if you’re stuck with one CD for that long, it can get to be uncomfortable and restrictive.

An alternative method of sound delivery calls for custom-fitted sound generators made for your head and ears and having pre-recorded pink noise sounds played for the duration of your therapy sessions. With a sound generator, you’d be free to walk around and do other things, but it can be quite expensive. Whereas a pink noise CD costs less than $100, a sound generator delivering the same pink noise sounds might cost several thousand dollars.

Counseling: A Critical Part of Hyperacusis Therapy

Whichever kind of sound delivery system you choose, there is another essential part of sound therapy: counseling. Having a trained counselor or advisor can make all the difference sometimes, which can ease the difficulties and frustrations that come with sound therapy.

To begin, any sound therapy program requires a high degree of self-motivation from the participant, since no amount of cajoling will persuade a patient to undergo the uncomfortable sessions required. There will be days when the patient wants to shorten or skip the course, or even quit the process altogether. Those are times when a skillful counselor can serve as a cheerleader, and convince the patient to keep eyes on the prize and continue to forge ahead.

It is quite normal for hyperacusis patients to feel that the therapy is hurting them instead of helping since pink noise can be torturous to their hyper-sensitive ears. At times, it takes some skilled counseling to assure a patient that the process is doing them some good, and not harming their ears at all.

It is often a long and uncomfortable process getting re-acquainted with the sounds of our everyday world, but for the patient who sticks with it, it is possible to lessen and maybe even cure the adverse effects of hyperacusis.