Sensitive to Sounds? MS Noise Intolerance Is a Thing

If certain noises make you physically uncomfortable, these strategies can help

Multiple Sclerosis, Consultation. Credit: BSIP / Contributor / Getty Images

Noise sensitivity, or noise intolerance, is often a feature of multiple sclerosis (MS)—but one that is not talked about very much. For a long time, when I had a hard time enjoying myself in social situations with a lot of chatter, I just thought I was weird or extremely antisocial. I found I couldn't converse with people in settings where music was playing. If I was driving and my passenger turned on the radio, I felt like screaming.

Movies were a special form of torture that I tried to avoid at any cost.

Then I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and started trying to piece together which “quirks” in my personality had to do with adjusting to funky symptoms. No one ever told me noise intolerance could be a symptom of MS, and there is shockingly little literature written about it. However, when I posted my blog entitled, “Q. Are You Noise Intolerant?” I found that lots of people with MS had the same reactions to noise as I did.

In the years since, I continue to experience noise intolerance, and I have developed some coping strategies that may help you. 

Do a "Noise Inventory"

In other words, get rid of excess noise in your environment. While this sounds like common sense, there is more to getting rid of noise than turning down the television since noise is everywhere. We have simply learned to ignore it, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t effect us on a subconscious level.

So, here is what to do: Go sit in each room of your house and just listen. Do you hear anything unnecessary? A ticking clock? A spinning hard drive? A bathroom fan that was left on? Turn each thing off and keep going until you hear…nothing. Do that (to the extent possible) in every room in your house.

Focus On One Sound At a Time

As much as we live in a multitasking world, it really doesn’t work out so well for those of us with MS (even if we think we have mastered juggling many things at once). It is especially tragic when we try to do this with sounds, such as conversation plus television, which results in not enjoying or getting much out of either one. Therefore, create circumstances where you are receiving one type of auditory input at a time and see if that works out better (it will).

Tell Others

Share with others that you're especially sensitive to noise instead of trying to hide it. Apparently, every time that I have tried to “fake it” with people, I look angry. For instance, by doing things like pretending that the really loud Nirvana playing while they are trying to tell me a complicated story is just fine, I guess I tend to bunch my eyebrows together in concentration (I am probably slightly irritated, as well, so their assessment isn’t that far off). I now just say to people, “I have a hard time trying to process lots of different noise at the same time, can we turn the music off/way down for awhile?” So far, I have only gotten good responses – probably because I take the blame on myself, rather than telling them to “Turn the damn music down already!” which I think they fear is coming, based on my “angry” face.

Know Your Triggers

I am pretty sure that for all of us, some noises are much more grating and distracting than others. For me, cello music makes me want to scream in agony, as does background noise of football games on the television. One woman wrote into my blog and said that a white noise machine that was installed in her office literally made her cry when it was operated. If you know the top couple of things that are unbearable to you, it usually isn’t hard to eliminate them.

Bottom line: Yes, it is annoying to be sensitive to many of the noises that don’t seem to bother others. However, it is what it is. I don’t think you can simply learn to ignore these things without causing a great deal of subconscious stress. Put a little effort into making your world a little quieter and you will probably find that your brain works better and that you are a happier person, as well as more pleasant to be around.

Read more about ways to optimize your environment:

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