Meniere’s Disease – From Head Spinning To Hearing Loss

Danger Level: Medium

What is it?

Meniere’s Disease is an ear problem which causes hearing loss, ear ringing and dizziness.

Who gets it?

Usually people between the ages of 40-60, but it can come at any age. There are some factors which increase the risk of having the disease:

  1. A family member with the disease
  2. Some allergies
  3. Injury to the head or to the ear
  4. Syphilis (rarely)

This disease happens to 50-200 out of 100,000 people, and most of the time involves only one ear.

What causes it?

Our ear is divided into 3 parts: The outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. Meniere’s disease is a disease of the inner ear.

Our inner ear is responsible for two things: Hearing (naturally), and also balance. There is a fluid inside the inner ear, called endolymph, which helps it work properly. In Meniere’s disease, there is too much endolymph, which causes problems with hearing and balance.

drawing of the internal structure of the ear

The inner ear is what lies behind your eardrum.

How does it feel?

The disease comes in attacks, which last for up to 24 hours. The main feature of these attacks is a dizziness called vertigo. The main difference between the dizziness we all know (feeling faintish and queasy) and vertigo is that in vertigo it feels as if the world is turning. This has to do with the problems the ear is having keeping our balance. With that comes nausea and vomiting, and problems keeping straight.

The second feature is something called tinnitus, or ringing in your ears.

The third and last feature is hearing loss. First it comes in attacks, but with time it worsens.

How is it discovered?

Meniere’s disease is what’s called in medicine a “diagnosis of exclusion”. This means that once other diseases that are easier to diagnose have been ruled out, w

e can come to the conclusion that a patient has meniere’s. In order to rule out these diseases an MRI picture can be taken, and also a hearing check called an audiogram will be performed.

How is it treated?

The treatment for meniere’s can be divided in two:

  1. Symptomatic relief: These are medications that help ease the attacks. They include drugs against nausea, diuretics (these are drugs that cause the body to urinate more fluid. As mentioned above, there is excess fluid in the inner ear). For this reason, sometimes a low-salt diet is tried, which should cause less fluid to accumulate in the body, including the ear.
  2. Direct measures: If all of this doesn’t work, a drug named gentamicin is injected to the ear, which destroys the organ inside the ear which is responsible for balance. Another option is a surgery, that does the same thing mechanically. Both are permanent and irreversible, and therefore are a last resort.

What happens after treatment?

The disease varies between people: some will have severe attacks, while others may have a milder disease. In some people the disease may disappear altogether, while in others it can cause a permanent hearing loss.

Here’s a woman that was actually treated successfully:

The bottom line: How do I avoid it?

In most cases, the reason for the disease is unknown. But, as written above, sometimes the disease is caused by injuries to the head. Therefore, it’s a good idea to wear a helmet when bicycling, riding a motorcycle, playing baseball or other activities which can end in an injury to the head.

Also, since sometimes allergies can be related to Meniere’s, treating your allergies might help.

For a personal perspective on Meniere's disease, visit the My life and Meniere's disease blog.