by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A lady wrote,
I came across your website while researching the term ‘recruitment’ which the audiologist mentioned to me this week. She tested me and I have mild/moderate hearing loss. The reason I had hearing tested is because I have sensitivity to noise and also tinnitus (low drum/bass sound). I live in a condo and I hear snoring below and lot of movement above from neighbors. I have developed a really huge intolerance of noise especially motor sounds and a sleep disturbance.
I started using Bose noise-cancelling headphones and thought I had discovered Paradise—for a few months—until I started having post-nasal drip and my left ear started with tinnitus. Now there is no getting away from noise.
I expect the tinnitus will resolve when the post-nasal drip clears and I can resume my ‘Paradise world’ with the Bose headset. I was shocked when my audiologist strongly advised against using the headset and mentioned something about recruitment. She told me my problem will get worse if I wear the head set. Now what do I do? I paid $299 for these and thought they were the best thing ever. Do you have any thoughts on this situation. I am perplexed.
Personally, I don’t think your problem is recruitment like your audiologist says. Recruitment is when certain sounds become too loud abnormally fast. Recruitment is not a supersensitivity to sound in general. Furthermore, recruitment is always a byproduct of a sensorineural hearing loss. The worse the hearing loss, generally the worse the recruitment.
Rather, I think your problem is that you have two other conditions. The first one is somewhat similar to recruitment and people often confuse them—namely hyperacusis. Hyperacusis is a supersensitivity to all sounds, not just certain ones that recruit. (Incidentally, you can have hyperacusis whether you have a hearing loss or not.)
The second condition I believe you are experiencing is Musical Ear Syndrome or MES for short. MES is where you hear phantom non-tinnitus sounds. Often the sounds are musical, but as in your case it can sound like snoring or people moving around upstairs.
My question is why are you hearing these sounds now? You didn’t hear them in the past, so why are you hearing them now? Also, why are you only apparently sensitive to these sounds, and not all other sounds? This is why I believe you have Musical Ear Syndrome in addition to hyperacusis.
Assuming your tinnitus is caused by your post nasal drip, I agree that when your sinuses clear up, your tinnitus may also go away.
However, I’m with your audiologist on your not wearing the noise-canceling headphones. Noise-canceling headphones have their place to be sure—and that is when you are in noisy surroundings where you need to protect your ears or go deaf. That is where you should wear them—not in your bedroom where it is relatively quiet. Here’s why.
God made our ears to hear sounds. When you wear your noise-canceling headphones, that cuts out all the faint sounds your ears normally hear—and you need to hear these sounds to keep your brain happy. When you wear the noise-canceling earphones, they starve your brain for sounds.
In addition, you have a mild to moderate hearing loss that is also starving your brain for sounds. As a result, your brain does two things. First, it cranks up your internal volume control to try to hear more sounds. When it does that, you now can hear fainter sounds—and regular sounds are now louder. In other words, you are more sensitive to sound. This is hyperacusis.
The more you starve your brain for sounds by wearing the headphones, the more your brain turns up its internal volume, and the more sensitive you become to sound. This becomes a vicious cycle. If you keep on doing this, you will likely drive yourself “buggy”, and you’ll have difficulty tolerating any sounds.
At the same time, because your brain is not hearing real sounds, it begins to manufacture phantom sounds. I think this is what is happening when you say you hear people snoring below you and moving around upstairs. I doubt that those are truly real sounds. Yes, they may sound like real sounds, and that is why you are being fooled, but they are phantom sounds generated in your brain.
To separate real sounds from the phantom, you have to ask yourself if it is even possible for a person with normal hearing to hear those ‘upstairs’ sounds from your apartment? Many apartments are built with carpeted, concrete floors. Sounds like snoring and people walking around just do not penetrate those floors.
For example, I know of people who are mad at their neighbors for making a lot of racket, when in actual fact, the neighbors are very quiet people and walk around in slippers on a carpeted floor. There is no way anyone can hear the upstairs neighbors walking around, yet the person below swears they hear them. One of the interesting things is they hear them even when the people above them are not home! That is another proof that these sounds are phantom.
I really think this is what is happening in your case. Continuing to wear the noise-canceling headphones will only make matters worse and Worse and WORSE.
I think you have another problem. You haven’t said so specifically, but I suspect that you are either particularly stressed, anxious, worried, or depressed. Any of these emotional conditions can trigger what you are experiencing. For example, anxiety can easily cause hyperacusis, while stress, worry and depression can result in Musical Ear Syndrome.
So what can you do? First, you need to give your ears real sounds to listen to. Rather than wearing noise-canceling headphones to block out all sounds, you should listen to some soft sounds—sounds that you enjoy—while you fall asleep. As an example, this may be a CD of calming music, or one of environmental sounds such as rainfall, waterfalls, waves lapping on the beach, etc.—whatever you like.
Doing this will give your brain real sounds to listen to. As a result, your brain will slowly begin to turn down its internal volume so you won’t be so sensitive to sound. In addition, the real sounds will also keep the auditory neurons in your brain busy so they won’t have so much time to generate the phantom sounds you are now hearing.
You may find it most helpful to read my articles, “Here’s Why Chronic Anxiety Can Result in Tinnitus and Hyperacusis“, and “Musical Ear Syndrome“. In addition, there are a number of other tips for dealing with Musical Ear Syndrome in my book, “Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds“.