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Latimer: Sound sensitivity syndrome still not fully understood
Do you find it annoying to hear the sounds of someone else chewing or slurping?
While this is a pet peeve for many people, for some those small sounds pose a big problem.
Individuals experiencing a condition called misophonia, or selective sound sensitivity syndrome, can become anxious or enraged by small sounds such as other people eating, breathing, coughing, typing, a dripping faucet or other every day noises.
Until fairly recently, these people have often been told they are simply over-reacting, but this view is changing now.
Misophonia (which means hatred of sound) is a newly recognized condition with little research surrounding it as of yet.
It is considered a cousin to tinnitus and is characterized by an involuntary decreased tolerance to specific sounds.
Not much is understood about misophonia yet, but it is thought to result from a physiological abnormality in the structures of the brain involved with processing sounds.
There is no good data on its prevalence, but the condition does seem to have genetic roots and begins typically in late childhood or early adolescence and gets worse over time.
Often, it starts with sensitivity to just one kind of sound and gradually expands to include more noises.
Until now, many people experiencing this sensitivity have been mistakenly diagnosed with other problems when presenting their specific symptoms—they have been told they have a phobia or obsessive compulsive disorder, mania or an anxiety disorder.
Sometimes, misophonia is confused with another condition called hyperacusis—where sound is perceived as abnormally loud or physically painful. However, the two conditions are not the same.
Indeed, the sounds that trigger rage or anxiety in misophonia are quiet, hardly audible noises rather than loud noises.
No effective treatment exists for misophonia. Most people go out of their way to avoid the sounds they can’t tolerate.
Obviously, this can cause issues in relationships and social settings.
When it is impossible to avoid the sounds, some people try to mask them by timing their own chewing to match the other, wearing earplugs or using white noise machines.
Some people feel better if they vocalize their discomfort by telling the person who is eating near them that the noise bothers them.
Others find mimicking the offending noise can provide some relief to the feelings of anxiety and anger that arise.
More research into misophonia will help us to better understand the exact physiological cause of the condition and may also lead to more effective ways to deal with the symptoms.
Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.