Sensitive Hearing and Fireworks

First of all: Happy 4th of July. Second of all, let me tell you about my sensitive hearing, and fireworks being the bane of my existence.

I’ve had slightly weird hearing for a long time now. As a teenager in High School, I had earned the nickname “Human Tuner” given to me by some of my peers because I was able to differentiate pitches almost nearly as well as a tuner.

As I got older, though, I noticed a regular problem.. Excessive wax buildup. In college, I had one ear completely blocked off, and the other getting close.

I went to the doctor, and was told that I had really small eustachian tubes (or something to that effect – I can’t recall now). This meant that wax buildup would occur more frequently for me. I got my ears cleaned, and was ecstatic to hear the world I had been missing for months.

Even further in life, when I was diagnosed with TMJ disorder, I started having regular buildup problems. I would have to get my ears cleaned every 6 months at a minimum or suffer more blockage. I still do, to this day, and frequently go every 3-4 months now.

That brings me to the latest problem with my ears: Sensitive hearing.

Besides being unable to chew gum, having to do liquid diets on occasion, and constant pain, TMJ disorder can also cause hearing sensitivity issues.

As the years have come and gone, my hearing has gotten more sensitive. It started with only certain frequencies, typically in the female vocal range, causing my sensitive hearing to rear its ugly head. I first noticed it with a friend of mine, and later with a woman I had went on a date with.

They weren’t speaking loud; the normal volume of their voice was enough to feel like someone was trying to push a screwdriver through my ears.

Now, somewhat loud voices in general can cause me pain, and in many frequencies.

It is more than pain, though, I’ve discovered. As a recording musician who does his own audio engineering, I think I can finally explain what is happening. To understand, though, I’ll have to share some audio-geek terminology.

The first part is compression: A compressor, in recording, is used to normalize (even out) the volume of a frequency typically. They are a staple of uneven vocalists, punk bassists, and mastering pop music to seem as loud as possible.

In my case, the compression occurs with ambient noise; the general hisses, creaks, and sounds of the outdoors all tend to come up a little bit in volume, especially when nothing else is going on. When you combine that with someone speaking to me, however, I have the hardest time understanding them.. Especially if they are soft-spoken.

Put me in a crowded room, like a bar, and having a conversation is an exercise in interpretation for me. I’ll catch little bits here and there, and I try to fill in the rest based on context.

Next, we have the great equalizer.

An equalizer, or EQ for short, is used to boost or reduce certain frequencies of an audio signal. These are used all the time on vocals, drums, and more. Every guitar amp typically has a 3 band EQ, and there are a variety of types. Even your car stereo has an EQ, allowing you to boost the bass and rattle the plastic frame of your crappy car when you want to deafen your neighbors with your “sweet subs”.

Certain frequencies have become more prominent for me, leading my sensitive hearing issues with certain women’s voices to encompass more.

Sirens & alarms are murder. If I hear a siren coming, I try to find a place to hide and cover my ears, but even with my ears covered, the pain still hits me like a freight train (another sound I can’t stand).

The meeting room at my office can be incredibly painful; as the voices reverberate across the glass windows, the pressure builds, leading me to cringe as if someone just told the worst joke in the world at a funeral.

So, how do I treat my sensitive hearing?

Right now? I don’t. Well, not medically, at least. I avoid situations where there is a lot of noise, do my best to control my environment as much as possible, and invest in good in-ear headphones.

If its really bad, I put on something I also use to help me sleep at night: Pink noise.

Pink noise is similar to white noise, but it spans more frequencies.

I’ve read that ENT docs will treat patients like me with a special setup utilizing high-end headphones and pink noise. While I don’t have the headphones used, I am making it work, and it does help. You usually have a specific listening regimen, but in my case, I can’t really follow that, as I need to be able to hear and interact with my coworkers.

One of these days I plan to find a new ENT doc; my old one works in the next town over, and my insurance won’t cover the treatment to any substantial degree that I can afford.

So friends, if you are wondering why I’m not out watching the fireworks, cringe when a lot of people are speaking, or get really nervous when I hear a siren in a distance, this is why.

I want everybody to enjoy the fireworks tonight. I’ll be here at home, and once they are about to start, I’ll pop in my earbuds and tune in to some pink noise to help alleviate my suffering.