Imagine the sound of nails down a chalkboard. Even just thinking about it can elicit a bit of a shiver down your spine. Fortunately, nails on a chalkboard are a pretty rare occurrence. But what if sounds you interacted with more routinely in daily life caused this response?
Misophonia is an abnormal sensitivity to sound resulting in pain, discomfort, and/or anxiety. Misophonia can occur in response to specific sounds or be a more global, general aversion to sound.
It would be natural to assume that eliminating the source of discomfort (the sound) would alleviate the symptoms. But are earplugs for misophonia a good idea? Let’s find out.
Misophonia literally translates to “hatred of sound.” Nearly one in five adults suffer from misophonia to some degree. There are some common triggers, such as “mouth sounds,” like other people chewing or swallowing, or “finger sounds,” like drumming, snapping, or clicking a pen. Other individuals suffer more severely, manifesting in a global oversensitivity to sound.
The response can be physical and/or emotional. Everyone has experienced that shivers-down-the-spine response to nails on a chalkboard and likely has also endured brief ear pain with a startle response to an extremely loud impulse sound.
In these instances, the tensor tympani muscle in your ear tightens the eardrum to help protect the inner ear from exposure to extremely loud sounds; this is what you are feeling when you experience ear pain. People who suffer from misophonia may also report additional painful sensations such as tension and tightening of the neck, back, and shoulders. They can also perceive specific sounds as causing a physical shock through their body.
Those with misophonia can also report emotional symptoms related to sounds. As you might imagine, the anticipation of physical pain can cause anxiety. Depending on the sound source, you may also experience feelings of anger or irritation, particularly if another individual is generating the aggravating sound. This can manifest itself in withdrawal from social situations, difficulty functioning at work or school, and sometimes in verbal or physical aggression (Vitoratou et al., 2023).
Earplugs for Misophonia
Sufferers may be tempted to use earplugs for misophonia to manage their physical and emotional symptoms. There are some instances where earplugs for misophonia are a good option, but it is important to be cautious.
Have you ever attended a movie in a dark theater and then walked outdoors afterward and felt that the sun was extremely bright? More than likely, it isn’t any brighter outside than it was when you went to the movies. Your eyes have adjusted to the darkness, and now you are overly sensitive to the sun.
A similar situation can occur when you use earplugs for misophonia. If you attenuate sounds with earplugs, everything can seem disproportionately loud when the earplugs are removed. You can, in fact, make your symptoms worse by overusing earplugs because you are depriving the auditory system in your brain of a normal range of soft and loud sounds.
So, when are earplugs for misophonia appropriate, and how should you use them? When they are used in moderation and for very specific triggers. There are some steps you can work through to decide whether earplugs for misophonia are warranted.
First, identify what sounds are upsetting to you. Is it possible that you can avoid the sounds without actively blocking them out? Is there a coworker who chews loudly who you can choose not to have lunch with? Can you politely ask your partner not to drum their fingers on the dashboard of the car while you are driving?
If you can eliminate the sound source, you don’t need to block it with earplugs. Let’s say this isn’t a sound you can eliminate, such as construction noise outside of your home office. During your workday, you hear drilling and hammering, and it is distracting, progressing to the point of being aggravating and inducing anxiety about your productivity. This is when earplugs might make sense.
There are a few options for earplugs for misophonia, and they span a wide range of price points. The cheapest option would be foam earplugs, typically intended to be single-use. These are sold in pairs and need to be inserted properly to work; they should be rolled between the thumb and forefinger, inserted deeply into the ear canal, and then allowed to expand.
If you are seeking something in-the-ear, you can also pursue custom earmolds. An earmold impression is taken by an audiologist or hearing aid dispenser, and the molds are ordered. They can be basic earplugs (think what someone might use for swimming), or more sophisticated filtered earplugs that allow some sound in but protect the ears from loud noise.
These are often pursued by musicians who need to protect their hearing but preserve the quality of music. They are more expensive than foam earplugs but may be more comfortable because they are custom and environmentally friendly because they minimize waste.
Other individuals may prefer an over-the-ear muff/headphone style over earplugs for misophonia. This is a popular style for noise-cancelling headphones. Some of the popular brands, such as Sony and Bose, make very effective noise-cancelling headphones that can also stream music and media via Bluetooth or wired streaming with a 3.5mm audio cable.
Guidelines for Use of Earplugs for Misophonia
If you are going to use earplugs or headphones for misophonia, there are a few important ground rules. First, consider your safety first. Your auditory system is often the first cue to the rest of your body when you are in imminent danger. Do not use earplugs or noise-canceling headphones while you are driving or doing any other activity that requires you to have some awareness of your surroundings to protect yourself and others.
Second, try to minimize your use of earplugs to avoid the ‘sunshine after theater’ phenomenon. If you can isolate earplug use to specific incidents, do that. If you need to use them for a sustained period of time, try to take breaks.
Third, consider introducing other sounds to avoid being in complete quiet. This alternate sound will vary depending on your personal preferences and your activity. Maybe you can’t listen to a podcast while you’re working, but playing soft classical music can help avoid complete silence and keep your auditory system stimulated without being distracted. This can also help to keep you calm if you are experiencing anxiety or tension related to noise. If you are going to opt for this, you will need to pursue earplugs or headphones that have streaming capabilities.
Other Strategies for Managing Misophonia
Misophonia is not fully understood, though there is some research to suggest there might be hereditary components. It is thought to be similar to tinnitus in its connection between the auditory and limbic system; that is, an auditory stimulus that has a strong emotional response.
Tinnitus is a sound heard only by the sufferer, whereas misophonia is a response to some external sound, but the resulting emotional reaction can be the same: anxiety, irritation, distraction, etc.
For these reasons, you might consider relaxation techniques as a more long-term management solution for your misophonia. This might be therapy, yoga, meditation, or any activity that brings you peace and relaxation. It is important to recognize the sounds that are triggering to you so that you can prepare yourself for your response.
With tinnitus, it is typically true that the more stressed and bothered you are by the tinnitus, the worse it gets. The same might be said for misophonia. You may need to find some combination of removing triggering sounds, implementing relaxation techniques, and using earplugs or headphones in some situations.
If you are suffering from misophonia, there are some steps you can take to manage your symptoms. It is possible that part of your management strategy includes earplugs for misophonia.
Consider your preferences in terms of cost, comfort, style, and whether you want the ability to simultaneously stream music or media while alleviating bothersome sounds. Feel free to consult other articles on HearingPeople.com to find different types and brands of earplugs and headphones for all purposes.
Remember the importance of using earplugs for misophonia in moderation to preserve adequate input for your auditory system. You may also find alternative techniques for stress management and relaxation to be helpful in reducing your symptoms of misophonia. If you are concerned you are suffering from misophonia, consult your primary care doctor or an audiologist for more information.
Vitoratou, S., Hayes, C., Uglik-Marucha, N., Pearson, O., Graham, T., & Gregory, J. (2023). Misophonia in the UK: Prevalence and norms from the S-Five in a UK representative sample. PLoS One, 18(3).
Eleftheria's world revolves around sound - whether it's designing high-quality audio applications, crunching numbers in audio signal processing (DSP), decoding room acoustics, listening to music or crafting the latest hearing aid technology and new features. She has a professional career spanning over 15 years and a strong research record (over 40 articles and patents) and has been the driving force behind top-notch products at leading hearing aid and audio tech companies. But what really makes her enthusiastic is sharing what she knows. As an avid writer, she loves spreading the word on the science of hearing, hearing aids and health technologies. Her ultimate goal? To give people with hearing impairments the insights they need to live their best life.