Myoclonus – Why am I So Easily Startled by Sound?

A few years ago it’s like something changed in me. Noise was so unbearable! Specifically, loud and sudden sounds. Everything is so loud, and when it is sudden, it can make me jump so violently I may drop/fling across the room whatever I am holding! One time, I was holding a plate with cake on it (we were celebrating someone’s birthday), and a balloon popped causing me to fling my plate of cake into the air, making a mess all over the floor. What the heck was going on? This was not your typical “a really loud noise made me jump” like in a movie theatre. When I say “it makes me jump,” I mean it causes my entire body to tense up so fast and tight that it’s like I jump, but it really is not the same.

Could my sound sensitivity be MS-related?

I dealt with this for a while before finally asking my neurologist if it could be related to multiple sclerosis (MS) because it was so severe, and I had always been the guy who never jumped or flinched at a loud and sudden sound, even when watching a horror movie in the theatre! Very casually he said, “Yes, that’s called myoclonus.” I had glanced over that term in a neurology textbook, but for whatever reason I never really looked into that term. So I went home with a prescription for Klonopin (clonazepam) and started to further investigate.

Myoclonus as an MS symptom

The first thing I read about was how there are different types of myoclonus, such as action myoclonus and cortical reflex myoclonus.1

OK, but what does all this mean? Simply put, myoclonus is an involuntary muscle jerk. Myoclonus is a symptom and not an actual disease, and since it’s a neurological symptom, it makes sense that it would be a symptom of MS. Myoclonus can occur in otherwise healthy people, too.1,2

Have you ever been drifting off to sleep and started dreaming that you are walking down the sidewalk when you trip on a crack, and as a result, you suddenly wake up because you feel as if you are falling, and so your legs jerk you awake? Usually, people refer to this as a “sleep start,” but the technical term could be a myoclonic jerk. Here is an even more simple form of myoclonus that almost everyone has or will experience: ever have the hiccups? Hiccups are a common form of myoclonus.2

What causes myoclonus?

There are many things that can cause myoclonus such as epilepsy and stroke, but we are going to focus on MS. One possible cause of myoclonus is damage to the brain or nervous system; see the connection to MS? Multiple sclerosis, a demyelinating (damaging) disease affecting the central nervous system (CNS)?1

We all need to have a startle response; it’s an important evolutionary trait that can be associated with the fight or flight response. But in the case of stimulus sensitive myoclonus, a type of myoclonus triggered by light and sounds, it’s like someone turned the “startle sensitivity dial” up from 5 to 10.1

One potential choice for treatment is Klonopin, which can essentially calm down electrical activity in the brain.2

How sudden sounds affect me

So I deal with stimulus sensitive myoclonus, meaning loud or sudden sounds make me “jump.” Of all my MS symptoms, I can honestly say this probably hinders my ability to enjoy life the most. Sound is everywhere, and now it’s so loud! What is hard to explain is what “loud and sudden” means to me, because it’s not just the sudden sound of a large explosion on TV that gets to me. It’s all about a sound that spikes higher than the ambient sounds around me.

What do I mean? Well if I were in a crowd of loud people, I would be fine so long as nothing louder than the crowd pops out of nowhere. At the same time, if I were at a library where it is totally silent, the sound of someone dropping a pen on the table would make me jump because in a room so quiet, the sound of that pen hitting the table is louder than the ambient sound in the library.

Luckily once I started taking Klonopin my quality of life greatly improved, because I hardly ever jump to a sound unless it is something so loud and sudden that a healthy individual should startle. Headphones help as well, but who wants to live 24/7 with headphones on?

My least favorite sound in the world

My least favorite sound in the world is now the sound of dishes being washed; glass dishes banging together and silverware clashing. The sound is so “piercing” to me that I literally have to leave the room. I can no longer handle going to certain restaurants that I grew up going to, because they have an open kitchen where the sounds of dishes fill the room.

Klonopin helps but only so much; dishes always seem to be more than that little yellow pill can handle. This affects me so severely that I spent a couple months experimenting with different material to help soundproof the walls of my room! One day it would be nice if I could move somewhere that I have enough land to not be too close to the neighbor's barking dog or a busy street. I just want peace and quiet!

Are you sensitive to sound? Have you talked to your neurologist about this? What are some of your least favorite sounds and how do you cope with them?

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