Understanding Meniere’s Disease

Most of us have felt dizzy from standing up too quickly or heard ringing in our ears after attending a public event where the noise level is too loud. And, we’ve probably also felt fullness in our ear as the result of a bad cold or upper respiratory infection. But when those three symptoms are present together you may have Meniere’s disease, an inner ear disorder that affects balance and hearing.

In 2010 the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) estimated 615,000 individuals in the United States had Meniere’s disease with more than 45,000 new cases diagnosed every year. The chronic disease typically affects people between the ages of 40 and 60; however, it can affect individuals at any age.

Health professionals believe Meniere’s disease is caused by an improper balance of fluid in the inner ear. Factors that might alter this delicate balance include migraines, allergies, head trauma, viral infections and the inability for the ear to drain properly. Some also believe heredity plays a role. 

Meniere’s disease can cause great discomfort and interrupt daily activities. Episodes can last longer than 20 minutes, cause extensive dizziness (vertigo), a decreased ability to hear and be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. In addition to permanent hearing loss, patients may fall frequently, experience extreme nausea due to the vertigo and have an increased risk for developing depression or anxiety.

If you’ve been experiencing any of these symptoms on a regular basis, make an appointment to see your family physician so they can rule out other serious health conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure. If you physician suspects you have Meniere’s disease, he may refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist for a final diagnosis.

In order to be diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, an individual must have

  • Two spontaneous episodes of vertigo, each lasting at least 20 minutes.
  • Verified hearing loss in one ear.
  • Tinnitus or a feeling of fullness in the ear.
  • Tests to rule out other medical reasons for these symptoms.

Although there’s no known cure for Meniere’s disease, your physician can recommend ways to minimize the symptoms. He may prescribe medications for motion sickness and nausea as well as long-term medication to reduce the amount of fluid in your inner ear. Some benefit from wearing a hearing aid in the affected ear or physical therapy to retrain the body’s ability to balance. Those with severe cases of vertigo may be candidates for surgery.

If you’re diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, you can do your part to relieve symptoms, too. Eat regularly, watch your salt intake and find ways to minimize stress. Also, avoid caffeine, stop smoking and control your exposure to allergens.

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