When I was first diagnosed at the Musicians Clinics of Canada years ago, one of the terms thrown out was hyperacusis. It simply means a hypersensitivity to sound (or anything else, actually). It's as if the whole world's volume control, normally set at 3 or 4, has been jacked up to 5 or 6. The cause is unknown, although people with tinnitus frequently complain of hyperacusis as well.
I tend to think of it as possibly unrelated to noise exposure. I frequently found my snare drum too sharp sounding, and I always sought out quieter gigs. Lately I've taken to cutting the labels out of my shirts because they drive me nuts. I guess I’ve always been a sensitive guy. But let's get back to the ear thing.
Again the people at the Tinnitus Centre shed light on this for me. Like tinnitus, hyperacusis is mainly a benign, stable, non-life-threatening condition. That doesn't mean it can't be bothersome or even distressing. It's also a condition that can feed off itself. That leads me to two other conditions: phonophobia and misophonia.
Misophonia is a dislike of a sound. Interesting, but hardly a problem – I just thought I'd throw it in to keep things scientific. Phonophobia is a fear of sound. Neither ailment seems like it might be relevant to a musician, but they can trigger a snowball effect.
If you are concerned about your ears -- perhaps you have a bit of tinnitus or hyperacusis, or you’re finding certain sounds uncomfortable lately -- you may have decided to take a proactive approach and protect your ears from routine sounds. It seems like a good theory, but your ears are self-regulating, and they can't do that if they're detached from reality. If you habitually wear hearing protectors in ordinary circumstances because you're afraid of harming your hearing, you are conditioning your ears to live in a quieter world. In effect, you're teaching your system to have hyperacusis.
The treatment for hyperacusis is to reaccustomize the ears to normal sounds. If you are disturbed by normal sounds, try slowly reintroducing sound into your life. Put the earplugs away when you're in a quiet place. Try to go without them for ten minutes, half an hour, an hour. Work your way up to the point that you only need the plugs for extremely noisy situations. Even then they may not be necessary. I sat through half a Jeff Beck concert before I realized I didn’t have my earplugs in, at which point I figured, why not just enjoy it?
Here's an important tip: If you decide to try using sound to 'recondition' your hearing and you have tinnitus, make sure you can always hear your tinnitus. Do not use sound therapy to mask the tinnitus. Although it cannot make your tinnitus worse, it can interfere with your brain’s ability to cope with it.