We all have sounds that we can’t stand. Nails on a chalkboard is a classic one that sends shivers up the spines of many people, and you probably have your own personal pet peeves as well (knuckle-cracking, anyone?). But have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that we’re extra-sensitive to some sounds? And is it just something we have to put up with? We asked an audiologist for the lowdown.
What sounds cause the most discomfort?
The sounds that usually cause a problem for people tend to be either very loud or very high-pitched.
“Some common examples of really loud or high-pitched noises are the smoke alarms in your home or an ambulance going by on the street,” Jodi Sasaki-Miraglia AuD, director of Professional Education Programs for hearing aid manufacturer Widex USA, told IFLScience.
“Other common examples include fireworks shows, loud construction sounds or attending a concert where the loudness and acoustics of the venue makes your night out uncomfortable or unpleasant.”
Of course, in the case of the smoke alarm and the ambulance siren, one could argue that the whole point is to use a loud sound that’s difficult to ignore. Most of the time, you’re not going to be exposed to these noises for very long. But a concert or firework show will likely go on for a few hours, and if you’re unlucky enough to live across from a construction site you’ll know very well how painful that can be to listen to for days on end.
“ALL of those scenarios should be accompanied by using hearing protection to avoid damaging your hearing permanently or making your sound sensitivity worse,” Sasaki-Miraglia stressed.
While anyone could be rattled by a neighbor’s loud hammering on a Saturday morning, or an evening spent trying to shout over the music to talk to your friends in the bar, some people’s sound sensitivity becomes a real problem that affects them day-to-day. What’s going on there?
Loudness discomfort levels
As we’ve seen, louder and higher-pitched sounds are generally less comfortable to listen to than quieter and lower sounds, but people’s tolerance for this can vary. Thankfully, there’s a handy test that an audiologist can perform to figure out someone’s unique loudness discomfort level (LDL).
“The Cox Contour Test created by the late Dr Robyn Cox, PhD from the University of Memphis, Hearing Aid Research Lab is a common clinical test that is used in audiology clinics today,” Sasaki-Miraglia told IFLScience.
The test works by having the patient listen to a series of low to high-pitched sounds and judge how loud they seem on a seven-point scale. From the results, an audiologist will have a good idea of a person’s baseline LDL and can tailor any prescribed hearing devices they may need accordingly.
“Knowing the loudness limits for each person allows for a truly customized prescription hearing instrument fitting for all!” said Sasaki-Miraglia.
What are the causes of sound sensitivity?
“It is common to see lower LDL’s in people with specific types of hearing loss conditions like noise-induced hearing loss or sensorineural [hearing loss affecting the inner ear structures or auditory nerves],” Sasaki-Miraglia explained to IFLScience.
Excuse us while we just turn down the volume on our earphones…
“People who experience ringing in their ears or tinnitus, or those who have auditory processing challenges may also have lower than expected LDL’s.”
There are also various conditions that make people sensitive to sounds in different ways.
One example is hyperacusis, which can sometimes result from other medical issues like Lyme disease or migraine. As Sasaki-Miraglia explained, “Hyperacusis is not related to loud sounds. The condition presents a situation where sounds that seem ‘normal’ in loudness to most can be unbearably loud to those who have hyperacusis.” This means that something as simple as the jingling of coins in someone’s pocket can sound intolerably loud and even painful.
Other people experience irrational anger at certain noises, due to an increasingly well-recognized condition called misophonia. Recent research suggests that this is more common than previously thought, affecting up to one in five people in the UK alone.
Rather than being a problem with the brain’s auditory processing system, as you might expect, one study suggested that the sounds people with misophonia find so intolerable are actually activating neural circuits that control the movement of the facial muscles. This seems to give people a sense of these sounds “intruding” into their own bodies, leading to feelings of anger or revulsion.
Whatever its underlying cause, though, there’s no doubting the rage that someone with misophonia experiences when exposed to their trigger sound. Sasaki-Miraglia told us that common triggers include noises of other people “chewing, breathing, [or] clearing [their] throat.”
“The more unusual sound sensitivities typically are associated with [...] misophonia and hyperacusis. Many misophonia patients say they are bothered by mouth sounds, like chewing, gulping, lip smacking or even breathing.”
For some, a dislike of loud noises can develop into a full-blown anxiety disorder called phonophobia. This is not necessarily linked to hearing issues, but can be more common in people with sensory processing difficulties – such as may be found in autistic individuals – and migraine sufferers. Like any phobia, phonophobia is an extreme, irrational fear, and sufferers can experience panic symptoms when exposed to loud noises, or even just the threat of a loud noise.
But just as one person’s trash is another’s treasure, so there are two sides of the sound sensitivity coin. Certain sounds that trigger sensitivity, and even misophonia, in some people might be absolute bliss for others. A recent trend on TikTok demonstrated this nicely, when people took to rolling breakable items – especially glass bottles – down staircases.
This symphony of crashing and smashing would have many people covering their ears, but others swear it provokes a joyous sensation called the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), sometimes more evocatively known as a “head orgasm”. Those who experience ASMR often describe a relaxing, tingling sensation triggered by various sounds – for some, it’s smashing glass; for others, it’s whispering, tapping, even hair-brushing.
A pleasant way to soothe anxieties and fall asleep, or a one-way ticket to nightmare-land? Each to their own.
Is there any way to treat sound sensitivity?
“If you are living with sound sensitivity, the best course of action is to seek counsel from a licensed audiologist,” Sasaki-Miraglia told IFLScience. “They will provide you with a comprehensive evaluation, treatment options and guided education about your individual sound sensitivity condition. It is not uncommon to uncover a few reasons that could have contributed to your sound sensitivity.”
In this case, Dr Google is probably also not your friend.
“You may read information on the internet that may lead you down a bumpy path of options or proposed solutions that cost a lot of money and are not backed by evidence respected in the audiology and medical profession,” added Sasaki-Miraglia. Rather, it’s important to seek individual medical advice, as one person’s hyperacusis or tinnitus treatment can be very different from someone else’s.
If your sound sensitivity is causing you anxiety, meaning you might be experiencing phonophobia, various treatments may be offered by a mental health professional, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
We all have to deal with irritating noises from time to time, but sometimes that irritation can turn into something much more. If sound sensitivity is affecting your daily life, it could be time to seek medical advice – there may be more treatment options out there than you think!
As Sasaki-Miraglia concluded, “No matter the cause, the proper consultation and diagnosis from an audiologist can improve patient outcomes and the quality of your life.”
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.