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Meniere's disease

Meniere's disease is a disease of the inner ear, which causes vertigo (a type of dizziness), noises in your ear (tinnitus) and hearing loss. Over time, your hearing loss and dizziness can gradually get worse.

About Meniere's disease

Your ear is made up of three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Inside your inner ear there are several fluid-filled tubes, called the cochlea and the labyrinth. These are the organs of hearing and balance – they convert sound waves into nerve signals and detect movements of your head. These signals are sent to your brain via a nerve called the vestibulocochlear nerve.

The structures of the inner ear

Meniere's disease affects your inner ear. It can occur at any age, but you’re more likely to first develop symptoms between the ages of 20 and 45.

Meniere’s disease usually starts in one ear, but can go on to affect both ears. Around one in every 1,000 people has the condition and around 25 percent of these people will get Meniere’s disease in their other ear at a later date.

Symptoms of Meniere's disease

The symptoms of Meniere’s disease can be unpredictable. You may have bouts of symptoms followed by periods of time when you’re not affected by it at all. This is called remission.

In Meniere's disease, attacks come on suddenly and may last a few minutes to 24 hours. You may have several attacks in a year.

Your symptoms may include:

  • vertigo – this is a type of dizziness, when you feel as if you or things around you are moving, even when you're standing still
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • feeling anxious and sweaty with a fast heartbeat
  • tinnitus – this is a constant ringing or buzzing in your affected ear
  • hearing loss – this can be partial or full hearing loss in the affected ear
  • a feeling of fullness (pressure) in your ear
  • feeling sensitive to noise

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than Meniere's disease. If you have these symptoms, see your GP.

As the disease develops, your vertigo can become less severe, even though the damage to your inner ear may be continuing. Hearing loss and tinnitus can get worse and may eventually become permanent. You may also start to have problems with your balance, especially in the dark.

Complications of Meniere's disease

Symptoms of Meniere's disease can be severe and unpredictable. Because of this it can have a big impact on your day to day life, including your work and your ability to travel. You may also develop permanent hearing loss.

Having Meniere’s disease can make you feel depressed and anxious. Supportive medical care and sympathetic understanding from family, friends and colleagues will make it easier to cope.

Causes of Meniere's disease

Doctors don't fully understand why people develop Meniere's disease. It’s thought that fluid builds up in the tubes of the inner ear and increases the pressure inside them. This causes damage to the cells lining the tubes, which are responsible for sensing head movements and sound.

The damage to the structures of your inner ear may be caused by:

  • an imbalance of the salts in the fluid of your inner ear
  • some viruses
  • changes to the blood supply to your inner ear
  • genetics – Meniere's disease seems to run in some families

Diagnosis of Meniere's disease

Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may look inside your ear and arrange a hearing test for you.

Your GP may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, an audiology department or a balance clinic for further tests.

Treatment of Meniere's disease

There is no cure for Meniere’s disease. However there are a number of treatments available that can help to stop or ease your symptoms. Your GP or specialist will discuss your treatment options with you.

Self-help

Eating a healthy balanced diet that is very low in salt (less than two grams a day) may help control your symptoms.

Background noise can help mask the ringing noise in your ears. This is especially useful when you’re trying to sleep or work. You can buy devices called tinnitus relaxers which play soothing music, or you can try leaving a radio or the television on as background noise.

Medicines

Your doctor may prescribe medicines to take when you have an attack. Vestibular sedatives, for example, prochlorperazine or cinnarizine, help to control sickness and vertigo. However, they shouldn’t be used to treat ongoing symptoms because they can cause drowsiness. Betahistine can help to reduce the severity and frequency of your attacks.

If your symptoms are particularly severe, you may need to be admitted to hospital where your medicine can be given through a drip in your arm, along with any fluids and nutrients you need, however this is rare.

Hearing aids

If you have hearing loss, your GP may refer you to an audiologist – a health professional who specialises in helping people with hearing problems. Hearing aids can help most people with hearing loss associated with Meniere's disease. Your audiologist will discuss which one might be suitable for you.

Physiotherapy

If you have problems with balance and have stopped having attacks of symptoms associated with Meniere’s disease, your GP may refer you to a physiotherapist (a health professional specialising in movement and mobility). He or she can teach you vestibular rehabilitation exercises to help improve your balance. These exercises can help your brain readjust to the way it uses balance information. They can be particularly helpful as your condition develops.

Talking therapies

Meniere’s disease can affect all areas of your life, including your relationships. If you’re feeling depressed, isolated or anxious because of your condition, your GP can refer you to a counsellor or behaviour therapist. These specialists can help you to manage stress, anxiety or depression and learn how to cope with your condition.

Surgery

If you have severe vertigo and other treatments haven't helped, your doctor may suggest an operation to treat your symptoms. Some of the operations can also cause deafness, so they are only used if your symptoms are very severe.

Talk to your doctor or surgeon if you would like to know more about surgery for Meniere’s disease.

Living with Meniere's disease

Symptoms of Meniere's disease can come on suddenly and be severe. Because symptoms can make you feel dizzy and affect your balance, it's sensible to take extra care when you’re doing certain activities. For example, always have someone with you if you go swimming, operate machinery or use ladders.

Keep your medicines close to hand in case you need them. Relaxation and managing your stress can also help you to manage the symptoms of the condition and have a good quality of life.

Contacting other people who have Meniere's disease through charities and patient groups can be a good source of support and advice. Your GP may be able to advise you about self-help groups in your area.

 

Produced by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2013.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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