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Noise Sensitivity in Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Do Sounds Overwhelm You?

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Updated June 13, 2014

Noise Sensitivity in Fibromyalgia & Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

To the common person, a lot of noise can possibly cause a headache and irritability. When you have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, loud, repetitive, grating or otherwise annoying sounds can cause a whole host of symptoms. A recent blog comment here said it really well:

"After  an hour or so in an environment with more than 2 or 3 people, I find I do not sleep well and that, within hours, my muscles, especially in my legs, and my hand and knee joints hurt quite significantly and no drug I have lessens the pain.  If I stay alone, in a quiet space, for a few days the pain does decrease to manageable levels.  I want to run away, be alone, not interact with anyone. It's as if all noises around me are all at the same level, demanding the same amount of attention and this is incredibly tiring.  Public places in general are awful."  -Clare

I really related to what Clare said about all noises demanding the same amount of attention. It's similar to what my dad described when he got hearing aids -- without the brain to filter the signals and determine what's important, you notice the car driving by as much as the person talking to you. I have to think that our brains, somehow, fail to filter out the sensory input that's not important, leaving us bombarded and overwhelmed with all the stimuli.

This aspect of our conditions hasn't been studied as much as the biggies -- pain and fatigue -- but some pain findings actually do lend some support to this idea. Most people have what's called an inhibitory response to repeated sensations. That means once they've felt something and their brains have determined it's not a threat, the response to it gets progressively weaker. A tight waistband, a shoe that rubs the Achilles tendon just a little, a slightly rough bedsheet are things everyone notices, but only at first. According to studies, those of us with fibromyalgia don't get to tune out these "harmless" sensations. Instead, our nerves over-react to them, sending more and more pain signals at every contact, and instead of filtering those signals out like it should, our brains seize hold of them and crank up the volume.

Most people have a similar inhibitory response to sound. I used to, as well. I worked in a TV newsroom, where we had multiple police scanners and the many phones rang almost constantly. A phone could ring half a dozen times before it really caught my attention. The scanner noise would fade into the background. When fibromyalgia set in, however, all of those things overwhelmed me completely. Recently, I was sitting in a fast-food restaurant and a beeper kept going off for long chunks of time. I ceased being able to focus on what my husband was saying. With each beep, I got more and more agitated -- it was almost like an electrical current running through every nerve in my body. I felt the first twinges of pain start in my abdomen. I had to fight panic and try my best not to tense up all over.

I do several things to counter these kinds of episodes, which can be the result of visual over-stimulation or general sensory chaos as well:

  • Carry supplements that help with anxiety (for me, theanine and DHEA work well)
  • Breathe deeply
  • Actively work to calm my mind
  • Avoid noisy, chaotic environments (as I write this, my husband is at a big indoor playland with the kids. I don't go there.)
  • Get out of these situations as quickly as possible
  • Go off by myself and meditate for awhile to mitigate the after effects

Learn more or join the conversation!

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