Have you ever experienced a sound that has set you on edge, made your skin crawl or provoked a similar over-the-top response? Many of us have those cringeworthy moments every night while watching the news but imagine experiencing a reaction like that over otherwise mundane, inconsequential, everyday sounds. As many as 15 percent of South Carolina residents have a hearing disorder that can send them into fits of rage with little or no warning.
Misophonia is a little-known hearing disorder that causes an intense aversion to ordinary sounds. Sometimes referred to as selective sound sensitivity syndrome, it is characterized by strong emotional and physiological reactions such as anger, hatred and panic. People with misophonia are set off by otherwise common and nonthreatening sounds such as chewing, humming, throat clearing, nose blowing, and tapping. Even breathing and repetitive motions such as fidgeting or wriggling a foot can send these unfortunate folks over the edge. Some people mistakenly call it a rare disease, but to meet that criteria, it would have to affect fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S., or about one in 1,500 – a figure that translates to .07 percent of the population. It’s safe to say far more people than that experience misophonia, even if it isn’t widely known.
The disorder is just now gaining acceptance from within the medical community, thanks to studies such as the one conducted by University of Iowa researchers in 2017. They examined a small group of adults diagnosed with misophonia and asked them to rate the unpleasantness of a variety of different sounds characterized as either neutral, negative or unique to misophonia sufferers. Their responses were compared to those from a similarly-sized control group who did not have the disorder. The results, published in Current Biology, revealed differences in brain activity in response to certain sounds. Subjects rated neutral and negative sounds the same, but people with misophonia described the other sounds, which included classic misophonia triggers like chewing and breathing, as “highly disturbing.” Also of interest: those with misophonia showed signs of physical stress when exposed to the trigger sounds, such as elevated heart rate and sweaty palms. Brain scans showed unusual activity in regions of the brain responsible for processing emotions.
Wondering why certain sounds such an intense response in some people? Experts believe it’s a survival mechanism employed by the brain in response to a perceived threat. This isn’t exactly unprecedented; allergies are basically the same – an exaggerated immune system response to an otherwise harmless substance, one that causes a physical reaction.
Doctors don’t have a cure for misophonia, but many patients benefit from a combination of sound therapy, breathing exercises and counseling. If you or a loved one is experience adverse reactions to specific sounds, contact your CENTA audiologist for an appointment.