When Sound Became Too Much to Bear

I’ll never forget the day it started.  I sat down in my chair in the orchestra pit and warmed up as usual for a minute or two.  Everyone quieted down to prepare for the tuning “A” from the oboe.. and the second the oboe began to play I crumpled in my chair and covered my left ear.  Why was the tuning “A” suddenly so loud and painful?!  As the rehearsal progressed, it only got worse, especially when the oboe to my left had any louder passages.  I sat there wondering.. “do I have an ear infection?”, “why is it just the oboe bothering me so much?”, “is he suddenly playing louder than before???”. 

            The doctor visits soon began, quickly ruling out an ear infection, but there were no clear answers as to what was happening to me.  As time progressed the problem only got worse.  I found myself wearing earplugs constantly, and not only at work.  The sound of paper rustling, or taps running or the radio or tv soon became unbearable.  I started noticing that whenever the orchestra was playing exceptionally loud passages that even with earplugs I was reacting.  It felt like someone was hitting me in the head (though only always on the left side) and I started to notice that it would almost scramble my brain.  During, and for a few seconds after any loud moments of music, my concentration would be shot and I couldn’t comprehend the notes I was looking at.  I would notice this when speaking too – if something was suddenly loud, then my speech would become jumbled and I couldn’t get the words out properly.  Perhaps the most disturbing symptom that started developing, is when I would go to stand up at the end of rehearsal and completely lose my balance, falling back into my chair.  I had no idea what was happening to me and I was terrified.

            This all culminated weeks later in an orchestra performance on stage.  I was playing a flute solo that I had performed easily probably a hundred times, and my brain started to scramble.  I was unable to put the notes together and I flubbed the solo in a way that was humiliating and dumbfounding.  I was no longer functioning.  With the personnel manager’s blessing, my best friend Sarah MacDonald took me to Emergency for help at intermission and my trusted colleague Gwen Klassen took over my part to finish the concert.  It was time to find what was going on!

            It actually took several more months to finally get an answer.  I was sent to an ENT who was unfortunately of no help and told me I would have to just “live with it”.  With some exasperated begging, he finally agreed to send me on to a top ear specialist.  It was at this doctor’s appointment with the ear specialist that I was finally told – you have “hyperacusis” and I know who can help you.  What a relief to know there was help!  Several weeks later I was finally able to get into see an audiologist named Anne Woolliams who specializes in hyperacusis and tinnitus.  She put me onto a lengthy treatment called “tinnitus retraiting therapy” (or TNT for short) that involved slowly re-desensitizing my ear to sound.  She set me up with sound generators – which are essentially hearing aids rigged to play white noise continually in my ears, and we slowly were able to improve my condition over the next several months to where I was able to function again. 

In the end I had to put down my flute for quite some time and I missed at least 6 months of work.  I spent the following season back at work still suffering quite a bit and trying to find the balance between ear plugs and the sound generators.  I took a partial sabbatical the following season after that and finally with the amount of time away from the orchestra I needed, I really started to recover. 

I still have hyperacusis, but now it only affects me in extremely loud situations and never as severely as when it started.  I only wear my sound generators to work now as a precaution and can live the rest of my daily life with no ill effects.  I’m so, so, so, so grateful to Dr. Woolliams for her help.  She saved my career and my sanity!

I’m hoping that sharing my story can prevent others from going through the extended period of fear and unknown that I did in dealing with this condition and hopefully shorten someone’s time suffering from hyperacusis!  My advice for anyone, but particularly a musician starting to suffer the symptoms of hyperacusis, is such:

  • There is treatment so don’t be scared!  I actually suffered a panic attack when preparing for my time off work not knowing if I would ever be able to play again.  I would love to prevent someone from suffering the same fear of the unknown.  There is hope!
  • Try to avoid ear plugs as much as possible.  I learned far too late that wearing ear plugs actually exacerbates the problem greatly and the fact that I was wearing them all the time worsened my condition.  Instead try to surround yourself with white noise (from an app on your phone or a wall fan etc) whenever possible to avoid large changes between loud and quiet sounds. **NB Ear plugs are still necessary to protect yourself from hearing loss in extremely loud rehearsals or when practicing piccolo etc. Just not for everyday use.
  • Go straight to an audiologist who has training in Tinnitus Retraining Therapy if at all possible. I wasted months, suffering and waiting for ear specialist doctor’s appointments – they cannot help you as there is nothing biologically wrong with your ear.  It is a neural connection problem in your brain and it is correctable with TNT.
  • Advocate for your own health!  If I had listened to the ENT who told me to just “live with it” I would have had to retire from music all together and would be living a shell of a life.  I’m grateful to have a great friend such as Sarah MacDonald who really pushed me to advocate for myself and she directly asked the ENT for further help on by behalf.  My BFF!!!
  • Expect a long recovery.  I would say it was a full 2 years after starting treatment before I recovered enough to be fully functional and comfortable at my job.  Be patient with the process and don’t rush things.  Take as much time off as your job will allow you – I definitely went back to work too soon and it set me back quite a bit.
  • Reach out.  If this is something you are suffering with – PLEASE reach out and talk to me directly.  Don’t be shy! I was able to speak to another Canadian musician with this affliction mid-way through my journey and it really helped me a lot to hear his story and to hear about his recovery.

You can contact Sara Hahn-Scinocco through the contact section of GBFlutes.com or through Facebook messenger.  Or feel free to leave a comment below and share your story with all of us!

4 thoughts on “When Sound Became Too Much to Bear

  1. I am not a professional flutist but your story rings so true. I was on vacation after a long flight when the tinnitus started. Subdued at first then slowly after weeks building. Then the sensitivity . My ears became overwhelming some times. I could just sit and hope the sound would reduce. I was also told, just live with it. There is nothing you can do. Sometimes the noise in my head is so loud, I have trouble concentrating on others and am sure I have missed things that have been said. Other times it subsides but it is always with me. The high notes on the flute frighten me. They hurt and I know I tighten up, then I need to practice more. I have considered giving up but, I bear with it and have been wearing plugs. Why were you told not too wear plugs? I have hearing aids just to block the signal with white noise as you do and use them now and then just to relax me. My tension does not help my flute playing. I can’t relax easily. I work at it all the time. It’s a double issue of tension and concentration. So annoying. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Lee-Ann and I’m so sorry to hear you are suffering. I can totally relate to tensing up when playing the flute – especially in the high register as sometimes those high notes were just too much to bear!
      I think it is ok to wear ear plugs to protect your hearing from damage – in the sense that a person without hyperacusis or hearing sensitivity would wear ear plugs when practicing high notes for an extended period of time or practicing piccolo etc. I, on the other hand, started to wear them all day to avoid hearing taps running or paper rustling etc.. this only made the condition worse. I remember my audiologist explaining why white noise was more effective than blocking out sound with this analogy: When you see a burning candle in the dark, it seems very bright, whereas if you turn on a light in the room the burning candle doesn’t seem bright at all. This is what white noise does – it turns on the “light” so that sound doesn’t seem so jarring. There is a lot more scientific explanation for all the treatments, and I would highly encourage you to try to find an audiologist who specializes in TRT and has experience with people with tinnitus AND hyperacusis. They are rare, but they exist and they can explain this all much better than I ever could. I didn’t need a doctor’s referral to see mine, but I did have to pay for her services as audiology isn’t covered by Canadian Health care. It was truly 100% worth every penny though to regain normalcy in my life!
      Please let me know if I can help you in any further capacity and keep me posted on any help you find. Best of luck!

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  2. Thanks. Nice to know someone understands how hellish this can be. Yes outside sounds do drive me crazy too. Sometimes even running water can sound like nails on a blackboard .

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