One of the more ironic aspects of my hearing loss is that I also have something called hyperacusis. I know, I hadn’t heard of it either. It basically means a hyper-sensitivity to some normal everyday sounds, so that they become distressing or literally painful. I over-react alarmingly to the sounds of crockery or cutlery being put back in our kitchen drawers, for instance, or the clatter of pots and pans being stacked for drying on the draining board (especially if they slip and crack against each other – aaargh). To me these everyday noises sound deafening, but more than that they induce real pain in my ears. I’ve trained myself to refrain from yelling at my husband to STOP, because he’s not making a clatter deliberately. Indeed, other people wouldn’t think it was a clatter at all. Instead I take my hearing aids out (just for a few minutes).
I know this isn’t just a phenomenon linked to my hearing aids because it also happens when I am having my hearing tested. I loathe hearing tests for all sorts of reasons. I find it incredibly stressful to sit there, with headphones on, not hearing anything, knowing that the audiologist is putting their machine through its repertoire of sounds that other people hear. Stressful and, yes, upsetting; I sit there thinking of everything I’m missing. Then, at a certain decibel I can hear the sound but “yow…owch”. I’m also flinching away from it, grimacing. “Does that hurt?” says the audiologist. I confirm that it does. “Hmm, hyperacusis”.
Until I read up about hyperacusis I assumed it was something that was just linked to hearing loss, but it isn’t. It is also associated with Meniere’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, damage to the ear or brain from a head injury, Bell’s palsy, autism and a number of other conditions. There seems to be a clear link between tinnitus (more on that another day, something else I suffer from) and hyeracusis, with many tinnitus sufferers also having hyperacusis. Beethoven suffered from both apparently, along with his hearing loss.
It’s not just clattering pots and pans that some people can find painful or distressing – other sounds occurring frequently on a painful list are dogs barking, children squealing, loud clapping, some musical sounds, police car sirens, car alarms and so on. Thankfully, it’s mainly the pots and pans and various alarms that get to me, rather than dogs. One of the several failures of our dog training regime has been teaching our dog Izzy not to defend the house. She barks loudly at the postman, anyone coming through the front gate and anyone passing up and down the lane outside the house. “Alert, alert….attack on the front door!” “WARNING…..intruders heading this way”. It’s a pain, but thankfully not painful (and she does settle down quickly).
As I said at the beginning, I find this painful experience of some noises terribly ironic. Mainly I WANT to hear sounds, just not THOSE sounds. And it’s hard, sometimes, to explain to people that yes, I’m deaf, but please could they be a little quieter. It does seem counterintuitive and I can see why someone would be puzzled.
I’ve just been reading an article that said the condition might explain something that hearing people can find very annoying. The hearing person says something and we don’t understand so you repeat yourself, but louder. We then say “All right, all right there’s no need to shout”. Is this evidence of hyperacusis? I doubt it. I think the problem here is that the hearing person doesn’t understand that repeating yourself in a louder voice doesn’t help us understand what you are saying. Instead, it feels aggressive, or as if you are getting fed up with us (which you probably are, and I can understand why, but trying to hide that is a kinder strategy). I can see, though, that sometimes the deaf person’s odd reaction (odd to a hearing person, that is) MIGHT be a symptom of hyperacusis – in which case, all the more reason to go gently.