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Hyperacusis: When Normal, Everyday Sounds Are Painful

Tom Maholchic was just 25 years old when a loud event brought on hyperacusis with pain, a debilitating condition in which everyday noises are agony.

To most of us, the sound of a table being set for dinner, or neighbors cutting the grass, isn’t bothersome.

For Tom Maholchic, these sounds are torture. He feels physical pain in his ears when the world around him goes about the day.

Tom’s story was shared at our fundraising gala earlier this month. Watch the video above [warning: if you are sensitive to loud sounds, tune in after 1:18].

A Collapse in Sound Tolerance

It all began almost four years ago, when Tom was living in California. He played in a garage band, and he worked in a restaurant. One day, while he was at work, a stack of heavy dishes fell on the floor. Tom’s tolerance for noise suddenly collapsed. From that point on, normal sounds began to inflict physical pain in his ears.

“It lingers in the same way as, if you were to cut your skin, the pain sensation lingers long after the cut is over,” explained Charlie Liberman, Ph.D., Director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Mass. Eye and Ear. Dr. Liberman has studied hyperacusis, along with other little-known hearing impairments such as cochlear synaptopathy and tinnitus, throughout his long career.

There’s not much known about the mechanisms underneath hyperacusis, in part because it’s difficult to study. People with hyperacusis with pain struggle to leave the quiet of their homes, at times becoming reclusive. Some fear that a standard hearing test (involving beeping sounds to measure hearing thresholds) would possibly cause them more pain.

Sound Off

Tom wears hearing protection as he joins his parents, Betsy and Michael, at the kitchen table.

As a result of his condition, Tom moved back to his parents’ home in Milton, Mass., in 2014. They have made some changes to the house to limit the amount of sound Tom is exposed to — triple-pane windows and rugs in every room, including the kitchen.

With his parents’ as his main support system, Tom has built a life that involves painting, meditation, yoga — a lot of quiet activities. Most recently, he began going on long walks early in the morning, before the sounds of the day begin.

“I’m trying to become a sustainable, independent person, and I feel progress when I can take things really slow,” he said.

Hope for a Sound Future

Dr. Charlie Liberman, director of the Eaton-Peabody Laboratories at Mass. Eye and Ear, at the microscope.

While there is a lot that we don’t know about hyperacusis with pain, Dr. Liberman says there is some potential progress to be made. Researchers are looking into a population of nerve fibers in the inner ear to try to explain the pain that patients like Tom feel when they hear everyday sounds.

“We have to first understand, at the cellular level, what are the chemical signals that the cells in the inner ear may be using to transmit the sense of pain to these nerve fibers?” Dr. Liberman said, emphasizing that researchers are still working to understand if these nerve fibers are in fact responsible for the pain.

There’s still much work to be done, but there is hope.

“You can’t treat a condition unless you understand the condition, and [Dr. Liberman] wants to understand what Tom’s life is like,” said Betsy Maholchic, Tom’s mother. “If research leads us to a cure for hyperacusis, that would be amazing. Tom would have a life again.”

10 thoughts on “Hyperacusis: When Normal, Everyday Sounds Are Painful”

  1. I concur! In order to treat a condition, you really must understand it first. To that end, I am grateful to Eaton-Peabody and other labs that study hearing disorders such as hyperacusis and tinnitus.

  2. I have severe Hyperacusis. Burning deep inside my ears nonstop. With any sound it is much stronger. It is like acid inside burning slowly. Sounds stabbing in my ears like sharp knife. Really dont know what to say.. hoping good news from researchers

    1. Hi John, I’m so sorry to hear that. Our researchers are working to better understand hyperacusis and have hope for treatments in the future. Thanks for reading.

  3. I have mild hyperacusis. I am not bothered by mild to moderate levels of sound and can tolerate things at around 85 dB or so, a little louder if I’m wearing earplugs, or better yet, my Bose hearphones set at nose cancellation level. If I don’t have my earplugs I usually can’t eat at a restaurant. I jump out of my socks the moment I enter.

    I also have some hearing loss and have an Rx for hearing aids that I haven’t filled yet. I’m concerned that I’m going to have to wear a noise cancellation headset over my hearing aids whenever I go to a noisy event and what good is that? I’ve been reading about sound therapies that retrain the brain to tolerate louder sounds so I’m going check that out. Has anyone had any experience with it or likewise experience hyperacusis along with hearing loss?


  4. I have been suffering with hyperacusis since a car accident in 2012. It is getting worse and it is getting harder to cope with it. I have no support system nothing to help me cope with it. I find myself getting angrier and angrier and people who are inconsiderate and think they can make all the noise they want and too bad for people who have hyperacusis. If someone shot me in the arm, no one would question my crying out in pain. But because people can’t see the harm inflicted by noise on someone with hyperacusis, I am expected to keep quiet, no matter how much pain I am in. There was another car accident in 2016 and it seems to be getting worse. It is truly unbearable and I am at my wits’ end.

  5. Thank you for your research! My mother is 88 years old and has had Hyperacusis for 18 years. Whenever she is exposed to loud sound, normal for most people: she faints, every time!! And when she comes to , she starts shaking real bad. And then she is week for several days. These symptoms get worse as she gets older. I pray every day for a cure!!

    1. Hi Beverly, thanks for reading and your comment. We are sorry to hear about what your mother has been going through. We share your wishes and our scientists are working hard to learn more about the condition in the hopes of developing treatments one day.

  6. I have had severe Hyperacusis for almost a year now due to a sudden loud noise incident in my garage. Everything everybody here is describing is what I have experienced. Sensations of acid burning, ice picks in your ears, asymetrical sound distortion (worse in left ear), two different tones of constant loud tinnitus. I haven’t slept right this whole time and I am using ambien for broken sleep. This condition is a living hell! I’ve tried many different therapies, trt with white/pink noise, CBT and even tried Ketamine which only made it worse and created more anxiety and depression. This puts your nervous system in a constant fight or flight response. I hope there is some kind of cure for it soon. Nobody should have to suffer through this horrible condition.

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