When even soft noises feel like a knife to the eardrums. Joyce Cohen, writing for Statnews.com, introduces us to Tom Maholchic, who suffers from a severe form of hyperacusis where noise is felt as physical pain. Most people who have hyperacusis find ordinary environmental sounds to be uncomfortably loud, but a more severe form, like that which Maholchic has, is far more debilitating. For Maholchic “routine sounds — the sizzle of bacon, the ring of a phone, the rush of running water,” feels “like a knife stabbing his eardrums.”
Cohen explains that while researchers have known about hyperacusis for years, very little was know about the more severe form, until very recently:
Using new lab tools and techniques, pioneering scientists have identified what appear to be pain fibers in the inner ear, or cochlea. They are coining new terms, including “noxacusis” and “auditory nociception,” for this newly recognized sensation of noise-induced ear pain.
Cohen gives us an overview of the difficulties researchers confronted in attempting to learn more about nerve fibers within the cochlea, “a tiny sensory organ buried within a skull bone [that is] tough to reach and impossible to biopsy.” But, nonetheless, advances have been made. And for sufferers like Maholchic these new findings will help them get some understanding about a condition that “[f]ew doctors or audiologists are even aware of.”
Most importantly, as the research continues and hyperacusis becomes more generally known within the medical community, one hopes that general practitioners and other medical professionals will advise their patients to avoid exposure to loud sound. As Cohen writes, noise loud enough to cause immediate pain is rare, “[b]ut exposure over time to more modest noise — from music, movies, sirens, lawnmowers, and a thousand other everyday things — can damage hearing and set off the pain fibers.” Maholchic didn’t think his noise exposure was unusual–he said he listened to his ipod while vacuuming, played in a garage band, and worked at a lively restaurant–but one day his ears started ringing and shortly thereafter the pain began. Even if the research advances quickly and a treatment or cure is found in Maholchic’s lifetime, no doubt he would agree that preventing the condition would have been the better option.