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 neglected hearing loss, you appreciate that getting their attention can be… a challenge. First, you try to say their name. “Greg”, you say, but you used a normal, indoor volume level, so you get nothing. You try increasing your volume and saying Greg’s name again but he still doesn’t respond. So finally, you shout.

And that’s when Greg spins around with absolutely no awareness of his comedic timing and says crossly, “why are you shouting?”

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

Can loud sounds seem louder with hearing loss?

Hearing loss can be a strange thing. Normally, hearing loss will cause your hearing to diminish, particularly if it goes untreated. But things can get very loud when you’re out at a busy restaurant or watching a Michael Bay movie. Uncomfortably loud. Maybe the movie suddenly gets really loud or someone is shouting to get your attention.

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

Which can, honestly, put you in a cranky mood. Many people will feel like they’re going mad when they experience this. That’s because they can’t determine how loud things are. Imagine, all of your family, friends, and acquaintances seem to validate you’re losing your ability to hear, but you have this sudden sensitivity to loud sound. It feels like a contradiction.

Auditory recruitment

The cause of this sound sensitivity is a condition known as auditory recruitment. It works like this:

  • The inside of your ears are covered in tiny hairs known as stereocilia. When soundwaves enter into your ears, these hairs resonate and your brain converts that signal into sounds.
  • Damage to these hairs is what causes age-related sensorineural hearing loss. Loud sounds can degrade the hairs over time, and once they are damaged, they never heal. As a result, your hearing becomes less sensitive. Your degree of hearing loss will be progressively worse the more hairs that are compromised.
  • But this isn’t an evenly occurring process. There is always some mixture of damaged hairs and healthy hairs.
  • So when the impaired hairs are exposed to a loud sound, the healthy hairs are “recruited” (hence the condition’s name) to send a message of alarm to your brain. So, suddenly, everything is very loud because all of your stereocilia are firing (just as they would with any other loud noise).

Think about it like this: That Michael Bay explosion is loud but everything else is quiet. So it will seem louder, when that Michael Bay explosion happens, than it normally would.

Sounds like hyperacusis

Those symptoms may sound a little familiar. There is a condition known as hyperacusis that has similar symptoms and the two are often confused. When you first compare them, this confusion is 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 some significant differences:

  • While hyperacusis has no link to hearing loss, there is a direct connection between auditory recruitment and hearing loss.
  • Noises that are normal objectively will seem very loud for someone who has hyperacusis. Think about it this way: When you have auditory recruitment, a shout sounds like a shout; but a whisper could sound like a shout with hyperacusis.
  • Hyperacusis comes with pain. Literally. Most people who experience hyperacusis report feelings of pain. With auditory recruitment, that’s usually not the case.

Overall, auditory recruitment and hyperacusis have a few superficially similar symptoms. But they are very different conditions.

Can auditory recruitment be managed?

Here’s the bad news, there’s no cure for hearing loss. Your hearing will never come back once it’s gone. Treating hearing loss early will go a long way to prevent this.

This also applies to auditory recruitment. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively manage auditory recruitment. In most cases, that treatment will include hearing aids. And those hearing aids need to be specially calibrated. So it will be necessary to make an appointment with us.

The exact frequencies of sound that are triggering your auditory recruitment will be determined. Your hearing aids can then be adjusted to reduce that wavelength of sound. It’s sort of like magic, only it’s using science and technology (so, not really like magic at all, but it works really effectively is what we’re trying to communicate here).

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

Schedule an appointment with us

If you are noticing sensitivity to loud sounds, it’s important to recognize that you can get relief. You will also get the added benefit of using a hearing aid to improve your life’s soundscape.

But making an appointment is the first step. Lots of people who have hearing loss deal with hypersensitivity to loud noise.

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.