'I was allergic to sound'

When everyday noises began to make Chris Singleton wince with pain, he knew something was wrong. Yet doctors found nothing. He tells Liz Bestic how a talking cure finally saved his hearing – and his career in music
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The first thing that rang alarm bells – almost literally – for Chris Singleton was a strange feeling of fullness in his left ear. "It felt a bit like when you come out of a swimming pool and your ears get clogged up. It gradually worsened until I actually felt physical pain in my ear when I heard certain sounds. But the day I flushed the loo and it sounded as loud as a pneumatic drill I realised something was seriously wrong."

For Chris, a musician, the idea of a problem with his hearing was quite terrifying. Music was his life and the only way he could earn a living. If his hearing was affected it could spell the end of his career. High-pitched noises affected Chris most. "Everyday sounds like an expresso machine, squeaky brakes on a car or the clattering of plates would make me wince with pain. The nightmare for me was that music started to be painful too. The higher the frequency the worse the pain and if anything got beyond a certain volume my ears really started to hurt. This was all going on while in the middle of recording my first album, so I was spending a lot of time in the studio trying to mix it and yet most of the time I was in terrible pain. Needless to say the album sounded awful!" he says.

These strange distortions of sound began in 2004, when Chris was 26. He had never suffered any problems with his hearing as a child and there was no his-tory of ear problems in his family. Initially, Chris thought it might be an ear infection and he went to see his GP. "He thought I might have a tiny perforation in the ear and I was prescribed antibiotics. But the problem persisted and I soon began to avoid sounds which caused me pain. So, for example, when I got on a train I would find a seat as far as possible away from the loudspeakers. Social situations started to become difficult and bars and clubs were a no-go area," explains Chris.

Eventually Chris saw an ear, nose and throat consultant, who ran a battery of hearing tests but could find nothing wrong. "I wasn't really surprised, because of course I could hear only too well. I thought I was going quite mad since there was clearly something wrong but nobody seemed able to come up with a sensible diagnosis. It made me very depressed and extremely ill-tempered to be around. I had just moved in with my girlfriend, so her first experience of me as a partner was this incredibly anxious man who was terrified of sounds. It was a really unhappy time for me."

Chris's "allergy to sound" was ruining his attempts to make it as a serious musician in London. "It's hard enough plugging your musical wares around the big city without having the additional worry of the music causing you actual physical distress," he says. He took to wearing earplugs in everyday situations. "They dulled the sound and made the pain bearable, but I subsequently discovered it was the worst thing to do for this particular condition, because as soon as you take them out the sounds become even louder." Still without a proper diagnosis, Chris scoured the internet for a solution and that's when he discovered his unusual condition actually had a name – hyperacusis.

"I found several websites which mentioned hyperacusis, but they all seemed to have different ideas about how it should be treated. There were treatments such as desensitisation, which meant being subjected to white noise at gradually increasing volumes to readjust your ears to normal sound, but they were extremely expensive and at that time I was pretty broke," he says.

Chris finally stumbled upon the website for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID), where he discovered to his relief that hearing therapy is available on the NHS. "I was a bit sceptical at first because it sounded a bit like seeing a shrink for your ears. But it was an amazing treatment. My hearing therapist told me to stop using earplugs in everyday situations because they were simply reinforcing the hypersensitivity to sound. Specialist earplugs were recommended for use in loud musical contexts but were to be taken out at regular intervals. She also explained that the more I worried about the sounds, the more I tried to avoid them, which was causing problems too. It had become a vicious circle," explains Chris.

"Rather than being like going to a shrink, seeing a hearing therapist is more like just having a chat about your ears. She asked me questions about the problem and got me chatting and basically put my mind at rest. My biggest fear was that I had permanently damaged my ears but she reassured me I had not. She explained that because I had been afraid of hearing loud sounds I had become anxious and stressed, which caused the brain to produce substances which increased my sensitivity to sound. Effectively, the more anxious I got the worse the pain became."

Angela King, senior audiology specialist at the RNID says: "It's possible to get hyper-acusis on its own or with a range of other conditions such as depression, migraine, Ménière's disease or chronic fatigue syndrome. Some people with hyperacusis may also have tinnitus, where they hear noises such as buzzing, ringing, whistling, hissing and other sounds in the ears or head.

"The symptoms of hyperacusis can make people very angry, distressed or anxious and they often, as in Chris's case, find themselves panicking when they try to escape the sound which is affecting them.

"Many people with hyperacusis use devices such as earplugs to block out the sound, but as Chris discovered, although they may provide temporary relief they can undo any progress made to adapt to sound – and may even make the condition worse," she adds. "People who are exposed to loud sounds for a long time, for example in their job, can find their hyperacusis gets worse. This is what happened to Chris when he was mixing his first album. Proper electronic sound attenuators or musicians' earplugs should be used at those times."

Chris's hearing therapist helped him to break the routines he had built for himself, including avoiding noisy situations wherever he could. That way he could control the anxiety patterns he had developed because of the pain and distress caused by certain sounds. "To be honest, once I had been reassured that the problem was curable I started to get better almost straightaway. I had no idea the brain could play tricks on the body in this way. It was a definite physical pain but clearly there was a psychological element to the condition," says Chris.

He eventually learned to go out and about without earplugs and got used to hearing noise just like everyone else does. More importantly, he was able to remix his first album at a reasonable level, and has just put the finishing touches to his second album, Lady Gasoline. So does he ever worry that the pain may return?

"Not really. Now that I am equipped with all this knowledge I honestly feel fine and think I can cope with anything. Occasionally I get a twinge but I know now what to do and what not to do. For example I would never do a live show without specialist earplugs or put myself in a situation where I would be exposed to very loud noise. I think it's really important that people know if they have this problem it's not the end of the world and they are not going mad. There is help out there and I am living proof you can recover from this.

Chris Singleton's new album, 'Lady Gasoline', is out on 28 June. Dates of his tour can be found at Chrissingletonmusic.com

What is hyperacusis?

* People with hyperacusis, or extreme sensitivity to noise, are not all affected by the same types of sounds, but the symptoms are often similar. It can feel painful or startling, it may make you angry or distressed, and you may find yourself panicking as you try to get away from the sound.

* Nobody really understands the causes of hyper-acusis, but long-term exposure to loud noise can damage delicate structures within the inner ear. It's also possible that some functions of the hearing system that "balance" sounds are affected, as the brain normally sends information about loud noise back to the inner ear so that the volume can be turned down and the inner ear protected.

* Some experts believe that damage to this feedback mechanism may be another cause of hyperacusis. The brain also plays a vital role in processing sound signals from the inner ear, so problems in the ways these signals are processed could be another factor.

* For more information on protecting your hearing, visit Dontlosethemusic.com. For more information about hyperacusis go to Rnid.org.uk