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.
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
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.”