Musical ear syndrome, also known as musical hallucinations or auditory hallucination, is more common than you might believe. It can cause enormous stress on the individual experiencing it. It is more likely to be a song or music without words but a few people have reported to me that they hear songs with words. I find in my practice that people are embarrassed to tell anyone about what they hear and are secretly afraid that they are going crazy.
One source estimates that auditory hallucinations affect more than five percent of the population! In cochlear implant patients, up to 22 percent of the implantees experienced the hallucinations before or after the implant. Musical ear syndrome can occur in people of all ages, with normal hearing, with or without traditional tinnitus and who are not experiencing sudden stress in their life.
Musical Ear Syndrome is a Non-Psychiatric Condition
The majority of the people who have this condition have hearing loss. People may think the music is coming from a neighbor’s house or a car sitting outside the house. I had a patient come in with a family member who told us that her mom would start banging on the wall of her apartment telling the neighbor to turn down the music. Another individual became so distraught and accusatory of the other tenants that they were asked to leave the apartment complex where he lived.
Although MES is not a “scary” disease, persistent hallucinations may disturb patients and affect their quality of life. Patients should be educated about the syndrome and firmly assured that they are not mentally ill. It is important to remember if the room is quiet then the music or sound you hear may be more noticeable.
Causes of Musical Ear Syndrome
The causes of musical ear syndrome are not known definitively. There is a theory that the loss of hearing causes the area of the brain that receives sound (auditory cortex) to be hypersensitive. That area of the brain becomes sensory deprived because of the hearing loss. One study using electroencephalography found that musical ear syndrome has some neural similarities to tinnitus but had additional activation of the area of the brain associated with music and language production. The scientist could actually see the part of the brain responsible for processing music and language responding as if there were music being played during the test! If the music stopped and the person no longer heard the music, the response the scientist saw also stopped.
A cause for phantom noise can be medication use. There are more than 368 medications and other substances that can cause hallucinations including some very commonly prescribed medicine such as Zyrtec and Claritin, and many of the mood altering medications. You can go online and type in the name of any medication you take and then the words auditory hallucinations and see what you find. Do not stop any medication, simply make an appointment with your doctor and talk about the information you learned online.
There are people who report the music only when they hear the air conditioner or heater running. Others report the music begins when the refrigerator motor turns on. The theory is that the brain hears the cyclic nature of the sound and actually modifies it into a more complex sound from a memory.
Stress can exacerbate the sounds. It is always good to look at your lifestyle and see if there is a healthy way to manage stress through food choices, exercise and seeing a professional as needed.
Treating the Syndrome
One treatment is to reduce or eliminate a drug that might be causing the musical ear syndrome. This is always done under medical supervision. If your doctor advises you to change medication, take notes to document how you feel and if the sound changes or goes away completely. Another treatment is to wear hearing aids. You need to have a hearing test to determine if you have hearing loss and if hearing aids would be of benefit. By wearing hearing aids, you can focus sound to all the hearing areas of the brain to try to stimulate it properly so the brain does not create sound on its own. One option is to turn on music or the TV to introduce sound to the room and see if that “drowns out” the sound you hear in your head.
As you may have noticed, there is not one particular formula to stop musical ear syndrome; you may need to try various treatments. Work with professionals to find the best option for you and your lifestyle. QCBN
By Karon Lynn, Au.D.