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What is the Ménière’s Disease?

Model of Ear

If you’ve been reading about hearing loss, you’ve probably come across the term Ménière’s disease. Although the disease doesn’t just affect hearing, it’s often brought up when we talk about hearing loss because the effects of the disease are a result of what’s going on in the auditory system. According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA), a 2008 study revealed that in the U.S. alone, 615,000 people had been diagnosed with the disease (about 0.2% of the population).

What is it?

Ménière’s disease is named after the French physician who discovered it in 1861. The disorder affects the inner ear, specifically the vestibular system and its maze-like passageways, often referred to as the membranous labyrinth. Although much about the disease is still unknown, it is found to be related to the fluid (called endolymph) contained in these membranes and the pressure this fluid creates. Because the disease affects the inner ear, it often results in feelings of vertigo (extreme dizziness), tinnitus, a feeling of pressure in the ear, and hearing loss. In most cases, only one ear is affected. In addition, the disease is chronic. Although there are treatments, a cure is yet to be found. The progression of the disease can be broken up into three general stages.

Stage 1

At the first stage, the disorder is often unpredictable, and reactions vary among people. However, the first stage is characterized by sudden attacks of vertigo. The vertigo can be severe, with some people experiencing nausea, vomiting, a sensation of ringing in the ears known as tinnitus, and temporary hearing loss.

Stage 2

At stage 2, the symptoms increase in frequency. Attacks of vertigo usually increase, but are less intense. This stage is also marked by fluctuating but increasing tinnitus and a permanent decrease in hearing ability.

Stage 3

By this stage, the inner ear has been damaged, leading to persistent tinnitus and permanent hearing loss. In addition, at times, victims can also experience complete deafness. At this stage, the attacks of vertigo become less frequent and subside. They may even go away completely. But because the vestibular system has been damaged, there is usually a permanent decrease in balance.

Causes

There are many theories suggesting different causes behind the condition, but none have been proven yet. Although the symptoms of the disease are usually related to an excess of fluid in the inner ear, the causes of the disease are still unknown. The cause of the disease may be related to one or more of the following conditions:

  • An auto-immune response;
  • A result of allergies;
  • Poor circulation;
  • A viral infection;
  • Genetic inheritance;
  • Damage to the membranous labyrinth.

Treatment

There are many different treatment options for Ménière’s disease. Treatments focus both on decreasing the number of vertigo attacks and their severity. There are medical and natural remedies that can help ease attacks and symptoms, most notably a reduction of salt intake. Because most symptoms are caused by excess fluid, limiting fluid retention (i.e. reducing the amount of salt in your diet) or in some cases even taking medicine to reduce fluid retention may help. Balance therapy, lowering caffeine intake, reducing alcohol consumption, stress reduction, medications and surgery have all been used to help treat Ménière’s disease. Because the disease varies widely between stages and from person to person, it is important to consult your doctor to find a solution that’s right for you.