Managing Noise: How to Overcome Sound Sensitivity from Migraine Expert Dr. Katy Munro

by SoundPrint Team

Migraine is a common, genetic, neurological disorder affecting one in seven people and often associated not just with headache but also with increased sensitivity to sensory inputs to the brain like light, sound, and smells. People with migraine are often really bothered by loud noises or a combination of noises occurring together. Sensitivity to sound has been found in studies to affect 70-80% of people with migraine. It can vary from increased sensitivity to certain frequencies and volumes of noise ranges (hyperacusis) to phonophobia where noise sensitivity may be extreme. Some researchers have used white noise in studies and found it can trigger a migraine attack too.

Sound sensitivity is often present even when the person isn’t having an attack. If the migraine attack is starting or getting stronger, even low-level noise can be a bother and, as the attack reaches its peak, high noise levels can be unbearable, adding to the intense, throbbing pain. It doesn’t seem to be the loudness of the noise that is particularly the trigger but more the fact that the brain of a person with migraine can’t process noise well.

It can be helpful for adults and children with migraine to rest in a quiet, darkened room when an attack is starting but what if you are at school or out and about? Restaurants, shops, and bars can be very noisy places and travelling to and from school or work may involve using public transport with all the noises associated with traffic or trains. One study found that people with migraine found the noise of ambulance and police car sirens and railway crossing alarms particularly unpleasant.

In my experience, people with frequent migraine seek out quieter places if possible and avoid places where noise is intense. The SoundPrint app can be so useful for this by using the map and search functions to find nearby quiet places.

Is it possible to ask venue owners to reduce noise levels or turn music down? This would be helpful but often people with migraine are unwilling to make a fuss or complain. It may also be difficult for the level of music to be reduced or for customers in restaurants to be seated in a quieter corner. The awareness of noise as a trigger needs to be more widely recognised.

What if you are suddenly in a noisy environment and worried about a migraine attack starting? Obviously, if it is possible to leave or move to a quieter place this can help. If not, carry a pair of soft earplugs with you that you can pop in to reduce the decibels. Slow exhalation breaths can help activate the calming, parasympathetic nervous system and help you relax and not become more stressed by the increasing clamour and budding brain pain.

As a headache specialist who also has migraine, I was very interested to hear about the SoundPrint app and have used it myself to monitor noise levels in venues and on the tube. The worryingly high noise levels on the London Underground confirmed by the app led me to invest in some earplugs and they make the journey much pleasanter, reducing the risk of noise damage to my ears too. I recommend it to my patients and, hopefully, the more people who send in SoundChecks from venues, the more useful it will become to help choose somewhere to meet friends where you can hear each other talk and avoid aggravating a migraine attack.

To learn more about managing your migraine, have a read of my book, ‘Managing Your Migraine’, published for the Penguin Life Experts series. There’s so much that can help reduce the frequency and impact of these debilitating attacks. Wishing peace and tranquillity to all people and especially those with migraine!

Author: ‘Managing Your Migraine’ Penguin Life Experts 

Available now 

References: 2014  2019