Tag Archive: hyperacusis

Hearing noise? Here’s how to find out where it’s coming from

Photo credit: bruce mars from Pexels

by David M. Sykes,Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Quiet Coalition recently received an inquiry from a woman who said she hears “a nearly imperceptible high-pitched sound” in her living space. She states that she can hear the sound, but her partner insists there is no sound. “Could a smartphone-based sound-meter app isolate and identify this sound?” she asked, adding “if so, which one do you recommend?”

First, I must note that the fact that this woman hears noise but her partner does not means nothing at all. Her partner could simply have much less sensitive hearing!

We at The Quiet Coalition agree that the best step is to try to measure the sound. There are free or inexpensive sound meter apps that you can install on your smartphone, so start there. Some are better than others, but thankfully, experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tested and rated smartphone sound-meter apps, which we reported on last year.

But a smartphone app may not be sensitive enough to pick up the sound. What should you do if this is the case? The only alternative could be to find an acoustics engineer to visit your residence and use professional equipment to identify the noise and then help you identify the source. That person can also suggest some ways to address the problem—which could be a neighbor’s electronics. The National Council of Acoustical Consultants offers advice on how to select a professional, licensed acoustical engineer.

There is, however, another possibility that must be considered: hearing a high-pitched sound that no one else hears COULD mean that you have a hearing disorder called tinnitus or an acute sensitivity to sounds called hyperacusis. Tinnitus can be identified by first finding a truly quiet place, such as a library, or on a weekend retreat in the countryside, to see if you still hear the noise when you are away from the circumstances where you are aware of the sound.

40 million Americans have tinnitus (myself included), so it’s quite common. And many of us spent years assuming that the “background noises” we heard were actually coming from the environment and that everybody heard the same thing!

So we recommend that you pursue both of these steps, because exposure to noise can be stressful, can cause sleep loss, and can have other health effects.
First try to determine where an unseen source of high-pitched sound in your environment is coming from. If the sound cannot be isolated, then consider that the cause of the sound could be tinnitus or another hearing disorder that should be attended to.

Frankly, the best result would be that there really is an unseen source of high-pitched sound in the immediate environment. Why? Because that can be fixed once the source is identified. But tinnitus cannot be cured, though there are techniques for managing it—which include avoiding the kinds of exposures that may have caused it in the first place. And know that the onset of tinnitus can be quite sudden.

To learn more about tinnitus check out the American Tinnitus Association‘s website and the Clinical Practice Guideline for Tinnitus published in 2014 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

In addition to serving as vice chair of the The Quiet Coalition, David Sykes chairs several professional organizations in acoustical science: The Acoustics Research Council, American National Standards Institute Committee S12, Workgroup 44, The Rothschild Foundation Task Force on Acoustics, and the FGI Acoustics Working Group—a partner of the American Hospital Association. He is the lead author of “Sound & Vibration 2.0 (2012, Springer-Verlag), a contributor to the National Academy of Engineering report “Technology for a Quieter America,” and to the US-GSA guidance “Sound Matters”, and co-founded the Laboratory for Advanced Research in Acoustics (LARA) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He recently retired from the board of directors of the American Tinnitus Association. A graduate of the University of California/Berkeley with graduate degrees from Cornell University, he is a frequent organizer of and speaker at professional conferences in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

My 4th Noise Activist Anniversary

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Anniversaries are special. We celebrate wedding anniversaries. Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates the anniversaries of those who are in recovery. Wounded military veterans celebrate their Alive Day, the day on which they were wounded. And yesterday was my anniversary, the fourth anniversary of my becoming a noise activist.

I developed tinnitus and hyperacusis after a one-time exposure to loud noise in a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, 2007. As midnight approached, they kept turning up the music louder and louder. My wife could tell that the noise was bothering me and suggested that we leave, but I didn’t want to offend our friends who had arranged the dinner. As soon as it was polite to leave, maybe 12:30 a.m., we did. My ears were ringing when we left, and the ringing never stopped.

I also found that noise that didn’t bother others hurt my ears: Movie soundtracks, the grind of a food processor, loud exhausts and sirens, and especially noise in restaurants. I’m a doctor and have always done what I could to stay healthy. But I had no idea that a one-time exposure to loud noise could cause tinnitus and hyperacusis for the rest of my life. When my wife would suggest an evening out, I would ask, “Can’t we eat at home?”

On December 2, 2014, I read an article about hyperacusis in the New York Times science section, written by journalist Joyce Cohen, who has since become a friend. I circled it in red and gave it to my wife, saying, “Honey, this is why I don’t want to go to restaurants any more. They are all too noisy. The noise hurts my ears. Just like it says in this article.” My wife finally understood that while I might have been getting grumpier with age, my dislike of noisy restaurants was caused by an auditory disorder.

So I decided to do something to make the world a quieter place. I reached out via email to the four experts cited in Joyce’s article. One thing led to another, and I ended up serving on the board of the American Tinnitus Association and helping create The Quiet Coalition, where I am the board chair.

I learned that I wasn’t the only person in the world with auditory disorders. Hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis are all too common. But auditory disorders are invisible, and largely occur in older people, who themselves are largely invisible in our society. Except for congenital deafness, auditory disorders tend to be ignored.

It’s been quite an odyssey. I found that via the internet, I could communicate with experts in various areas of noise, across the country and even around the world. At the urging of one of them, I submitted abstracts to scientific meetings about noise. Those were accepted for presentation, and I spoke at national and international scientific meetings. I have had publications based on my talks appear in peer-reviewed medical and scientific journals, and I have been quoted in articles and have advised national and international health authorities about noise. And I have learned, through the nonprofit Hyperacusis Research, how truly life-limiting noise-induced hearing problems can be. All because I read an article and decided to do something to make the world quieter.

The world is still too noisy, and I still can’t find a quiet restaurant, but apps like iHEARu and SoundPrint are now available.

And as more evidence becomes available about noise as a health and public health hazard, I am confident that an informed public will push legislators and public health officials to eliminate unnecessary noise.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Restaurant noise in the news

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

I became a noise activist because I have tinnitus and hyperacusis and find loud restaurants unpleasant, so it was gratifying to see these two articles about restaurant noise. One is about restaurant noise in Austin, Texas, and the other more broadly reports about a study on restaurant noise sponsored by hearing aid manufacturer Oticon.

Both articles point out that the noise levels in many restaurants are loud enough to cause hearing loss, and that restaurant patrons have difficulty conversing due to the high ambient noise levels.

What the articles don’t mention is that restaurant noise is a major problem for older Americans, half of whom have hearing loss.

As long as the restaurants are busy, I don’t think they will voluntarily bother to make themselves quieter. As with smoke-free restaurants, this is something that will require enough voters complaining often enough to their elected officials to get regulations requiring quieter restaurants. Until that happens, speak up. If you go to a restaurant that is too loud, ask the manager or wait staff to lower it. If they won’t, leave.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

How a YouTube-inspired prank ruined a young girl’s life


photo credit: Edvvc licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Laurie Redmond writes about how a stupid prank by YouTube “trickster” Rick Lax inspired a miscreant to copy a video the aptly named Lax posted of his “prankster pal,” Ryan Hamilton, blasting his girlfriend with an air horn to get her to put down her phone.  Redmond notes that the video “entitled ‘How to get your girlfriend to put her phone down,’ has an astounding 246m views.” Sadly, one of the viewers was her 12-year old daughter Cindy’s friend’s ex-stepfather, who decided to play the prank on Cindy.

But after this miscreant played his prank, things fell apart for Cindy who eventually was diagnosed with “hyperacusis, or noise-induced pain.” As a result of this “prank,” Cindy has a “burning pain in her ears all the time…[and] [w]ith all noise louder than ordinary conversation, she feels like she is being stabbed in the ear. Her ears ring.”

Redmond has since learned that another “YouTube prankster, an F-list celebrity named Jake Paul, was sued for wrecking someone’s ears with an air horn.”  And yet the air horn “prank” videos remain on YouTube and Facebook, even though they “recently removed Tide Pod challenge videos so as not to encourage dangerous stunts.” Redmond asks what it will take to have these dangerously stupid and vile videos off of social media.  We would suggest litigation might do the trick, while recognizing how terrible things are when the only option is litigation.

MRIs are dangerously noisy

Photo credit: liz west licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

MRI noise is in the news in two recent reports.

People magazine reported the story of a woman who suffered permanent auditory damage from an MRI, developing hyperacusis (a sensitivity to noise, which causes pain) and tinnitus. The Quiet Coalition’s Bryan Pollard, an expert on hyperacusis, is quoted in the article.

And researchers from SUNY Buffalo and China wrote about MRI noise in The Hearing Journal.

Standard MRIs produce noise in the 110-115 decibel range, and newer more powerful MRIs are even louder. Knowing this, I have several quibbles with the information in The Hearing Journal article. Namely, the article cites occupational noise exposure standards, but these use A-weighted decibels (dBA) to reflect the frequencies of human speech. MRI noise is low frequency noise, so occupational noise limits may not protect hearing adequately. And occupational standards are not safe standards for the public. At least 25% of workers exposed to sound at occupational noise exposure standards will develop hearing loss.

Most importantly, for many people the auditory damage caused by MRI noise isn’t hearing loss but tinnitus and hyperacusis, as in the People magazine article. Exactly how noise causes tinnitus and hyperacusis isn’t yet known, but the mechanisms are likely different from cochlear hair cell damage causing noise-induced hearing loss.

Finally, the authors talk about temporary auditory damage, but many researchers think that any temporary auditory changes indicate that permanent damage has been done.

I can’t find any large-scale studies of auditory problems after MRIs–the equipment manufacturers wouldn’t be excited about funding such a study, and radiologists are interested in the image, not in the patient’s hearing–but anecdotal reports from audiologists indicate that this is a problem for too many people undergoing diagnostic MRIs.

So if you need an MRI, be sure to ask for “dual protection”– ear plugs and ear muffs. NIOSH recommends dual protection for noise exposure over 100 dBA.

And if you suffer auditory damage from an MRI, be sure to file a report with the FDA. That’s the only way the government will be induced to issue appropriate patient safety regulations.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

The wrong answer to the restaurant noise problem

Photo credit: Jeremy Keith licensed under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from the United Kingdom discusses expensive new headphones which can help someone understand conversations in a noisy restaurant.

This is the wrong answer to the restaurant noise problem.

Why should someone have to spend £400–about $530 at current exchange rates–just to be able to understand a conversation in a restaurant in London?

The right answer is making restaurants quieter, by reducing background music levels and adding sound-absorbing materials, so everyone can have a conversation without straining to speak or to be heard.

Noisy restaurants are a major disability rights issue for those with hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis. And it is an important issue for older Americans, many of whom have significant (25-40 decibel) hearing loss.

I will be speaking about the problem of restaurant noise at the December 2017 meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in New Orleans.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Millions of people don’t protect their ears

Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By Daniel Fink, MD

Noise is a medical and public health problem, and yet people ignore it at their own peril. Most of us are exposed to too much noise every day. That may explain why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 25% of adults age 20-69 had hearing loss, and that many people with hearing loss didn’t know they had it.

Which is why a recent article by Mark Fischetti in Scientific American,A Loud Warning: Millions of People Do Not Protect Their Ears,” is particularly disturbing. Fischetti reports that while “many people know that they should use earplugs or earmuffs when mowing the lawn or partying at the club,” they don’t protect their ears against noise at home or at work. If you click the link to the article, you’ll see a frightening infographic that very clearly shows that millions of Americans are at risk of losing their hearing or suffering other hearing damage because they fail to protect their ears.

Maybe if people knew that noise caused hearing loss, tinnitus, and hyperacusis–none of which can be cured–they might be motivated to protect their hearing and fight for quiet.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area.  He serves on the board of the American Tinnitus Association, is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’s Health Advisory Council, and is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America.

Can teens get tinnitus?

The answer, sadly, is yes. Emily Barker, writing for Redbrick, tells us about how she developed tinnitus from a one-time exposure to loud sound at a night club when she was 19-years-old. Barker says that she “never had any trouble with nights out being too loud, never had any pain or discomfort from loud music.” But after spending the evening at the club, and after she and her friends went back to the hostel they were staying at, she noticed that her ears “were ringing like crazy,” and she remembered “laughing about it with my friends because they were having the same issue and we were unintentionally shouting at each other from across the room.”

The laughter stopped the next day when Barker found that her ears were still ringing even as her friends’ ears had recovered. A couple of months later, she got confirmation that her hearing had been permanently damaged and she had tinnitus. She also was diagnosed with hyperacusis, a sensitivity to sound, so that “[a]pplause, doors or cupboards slamming, and things being dropped on hard floors are all sounds that [she] now find[s] extremely painful.”

Barker writes about the frustration of having developed tinnitus while everyone else she knew at the event did not, particularly since there was no family history of tinnitus. All she was told was that “sensitivity to noise is thought to be partly hereditary,” so her doctor theorized that she was “just an ‘at risk’ person.”

Barker concludes her piece with a warning to other teenagers and young adults, by listing myths about tinnitus, including, most importantly, the belief that you can’t get it from one night of clubbing. As she points out:

This is still the hardest thing for me to accept; it’s difficult to understand how just a few hours that caused me no distress or pain at the time can have had such a permanent impact. But the hairs in your inner ear can be destroyed by mere seconds of noise if it’s loud enough, and they cannot regrow: ergo, no cure.

Click the link to read the whole thing, and forward it to a teenager you know.  Hey, they might actually read it.

On hearing loss and the hope for a cure

In “High-Tech Hope for the Hard of Hearing,” David Owen, The New Yorker, has written an article that gives us a good look at what scientists know about hearing loss and where they are finding possibilities for treatment and, possibly, a cure. He begins his article with a series of personal anecdotes about himself, his family, and friends and the hearing problems they’ve developed due to exposure to loud noise and other factors. Owen’s interest in this story is motivated, at least in part, by his tinnitus, which is marked by a constant high-pitched ringing in his ears.

Among the advances that Owen examines, he discusses the discovery of hidden hearing loss and introduces us to Charles Liberman, who, with his colleague Sharon Kujawa, “solved a mystery that had puzzled some audiologists for years: the fact that two people with identical results on a standard hearing test, called an audiogram, could have markedly different abilities to understand speech, especially against a background of noise.” He writes that “[s]cientists had known for a long time that most hearing impairment involves damage to the synapses and nerve fibres to which hair cells are attached, but they had assumed that the nerve damage followed hair-cell loss, and was a consequence of it.” What Liberman and Kujawa discovered is that “the connections between the sensory cells and the nerve fibres that go first.” And the reason this early damage isn’t picked up by a standard hearing test is because it measures “the ability to detect pure tones along a scale of frequencies [which] requires only functioning hair cells…and is unaffected by nerve damage until more than eighty per cent of the synapses are gone.”

“A disturbing implication of [Liberman and Kujawa’s] finding is that hearing can be damaged at decibel levels and exposure times that have traditionally been considered safe,” writes Owen, but he is reassured by the researchers that the discovery of hidden hearing loss is cause for optimism. Why? “[B]ecause reconnecting nerve synapses is almost certain to be easier than regenerating functioning hair cells inside human ears.” In fact, Owen tells us that Liberman and others “have successfully restored some damaged connections in lab animals, and [Liberman] believes that far greater advances are to come.”

While cause for optimism is welcome, Owen notes something early in his article that is particularly frustrating to those advocating for regulation of noise:

There are also increasingly effective methods of preventing damage in the first place, and of compensating for it once it’s occurred. The natural human tendency, though, is to do nothing and hope for the best, usually while pretending that nothing is wrong.

Click the link above to read this interesting and hopeful article in full.



A sobering article on a severe form of hyperacusis:

Photo credit: Epic Fireworks

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.