Children with sensitive ears, also called sensitive hearing and hyperacusis, feel discomfort when they hear everyday sounds that are tolerated by those with normal hearing. The condition can be difficult to diagnose because children might present with behavioral, rather than physical, symptoms. If you're aware of the signs and symptoms of hyperacusis, you might be able to help a child gain a proper diagnosis from a doctor or audiologist.
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Hyperacusis is a rare condition that affects one in every 50,000 people, according to the University of California, San Francisco. The signs and symptoms of hyperacusis may present suddenly or gradually. The condition sometimes is linked to Williams syndrome, tinnitus and Meniere's disease. It may be caused by head injuries or exposure to loud noise, but the cause often is unknown. For children, the effects of hyperacusis may lessen with time and treatment.
Everyday sounds that might cause pain include washing machines, vacuums and children playing. Children suffering from hyperacusis might be especially sensitive to mechanical and electrical noises and appear startled when they hear a sound that's too loud for their ears. Certain sounds may bother children more than others. When a child hears a painful sound, she might cover her ears with her hands or attempt to get away from the sound.
Children might have trouble talking about their symptoms, and their discomfort may cause them to act out by screaming, becoming violent or crying. These behaviors might occur more often in noisy places, such as parties and large family gatherings. A child might feel more distressed when hearing certain sounds, such as loud and sudden clapping, and act out or run away as a result. Children who are having trouble dealing with their condition might find it difficult to concentrate in school and perform poorly. Some children might physically harm themselves when they're exposed to sounds to which they're sensitive. They also might experience depression.
An audiologist typically diagnoses hyperacusis. The audiologist performs a physical exam, takes the child's medical history and asks questions about the child's symptoms. A hearing test also is given to assess the child's hearing.
Counseling and retraining therapy are provided to children suffering from hyperacusis. Counseling helps children cope with their condition, while retraining therapy decreases their sensitivity to sound. A child might be provided with a wearable sound generator that continuously plays gentle sounds, such as music or noise. After listening to these sounds every day for three months to two years, a child might become less sensitive to everyday sounds.
Tips for Parents and Caregivers
Children suffering from hyperacusis shouldn't be given earplugs or other devices designed to lessen the loudness of sounds, unless they're in extremely loud environments. These devices may lead to increased sensitivity. If a child exhibits distress or discomfort due to sound, remove the child from the environment and comfort her. Children might grow more accustomed to sounds if they're encouraged to make sounds by clapping or playing with devices that make sounds. Parents should inform their child's teachers about the condition and request permission for their child to leave the classroom if she experiences distressing sounds.