What Is Meniere’s Disease?

My husband is showing some symptoms of Meniere’s disease, but his doctor seems unwilling to discuss this as a potential problem. My research on the internet has been unsuccessful. Can you send me something to show this other doctor?

Meniere’s disease or syndrome is a condition of unknown cause in which the organs of the inner ear, the cochlea where sound is heard and the semicircular canals which provide balance and positional information, become swollen and slowly cease functioning due to damage.

The cochlea and the semicircular canals (also often referred to as the vestibular apparatus) are filled with a fluid called endolymph. Both organs have many tiny hair cells lining their inner surfaces. In the case of the cochlea, the hair cells are “tuned” to react to different frequencies of sound. Each hair cell, when stimulated by its particular frequency, sends a tiny electrical pulse along the nerve leading from it to the brain. It is the combination of all those tiny nerve pulses that allow us to perceive sound. Damage to the hair cells produced by the increased pressure of endolymph produces the increasing deafness found in Meniere’s disease. This is called sensory hearing loss since it is the sensory organ itself that is undergoing damage.

Similar sensory hearing loss also occurs with age, or from being exposed to high volume sound. The sensory hearing loss that we experience with age in industrialized societies is probably due to a lifetime spent at the relatively high noise levels of modern society. People who have spent a lifetime in quiet environments show much less hearing loss with age.

Malfunction of the vestibular apparatus leads to the very disturbing symptom called vertigo. In non-medical terms we would call this dizziness, but vertigo refers to a very specific form of dizziness, in which people have the sensation that everything around them is spinning or turning. When severe this can lead to nausea and vomiting, an effect similar to seasickness. In Meniere’s, attacks of vertigo may occur without warning and last for several hours to a day. Lying down with the head still is usually necessary to prevent nausea and vomiting, although milder attacks can occur which permit the person to function almost normally.

The third part of Meniere’s disease is tinnitus, a persistent ringing or buzzing noise that may be loud enough to interfere with normal hearing. In Meniere’s disease it may also be intermittent, accompanying the attacks of vertigo, but as the condition progresses it usually becomes fixed or permanent, as the sensory hearing loss is progressing. Tinnitus can be a symptom of other problems, and is also often seen in people suffering from noise-induced hearing loss. I have had tinnitus myself for quite a few years, induced I believe by operating noisy wood working tools without hearing protection. Fortunately mine is mild enough that I have very little interference with my hearing.

Variations in the timing and appearance of these three symptoms of Meniere’s disease do exist. Some people, for example, will not have attacks of vertigo until several years after they have experienced tinnitus and hearing loss. Although one may be suspicious that Meniere’s is the cause of such hearing loss and tinnitus, it’s not really possible to diagnose the condition until all three of the symptoms have appeared.

Treatment of Meniere’s disease is not very satisfactory. There are drugs to reduce the discomfort of vertigo, and in severely affected people, surgical procedures to cut the nerves to the vestibular apparatus may be performed. The hearing loss and tinnitus should be treated with hearing aids. Tinnitus will often diminish in intensity when hearing is improved with hearing aids.

Since you didn’t describe your husband’s symptoms, I can’t say whether he has Meniere’s disease or not. If his symptoms fit the description of the condition that I have given, then you might want to suggest to your husband’s doctor that a consultation with an ear, nose and throat specialist would be appropriate. Hearing tests at intervals need to be done to follow the hearing loss, and a scan of the head to rule out other causes of vertigo and tinnitus would be important.

The information provided on Health Search Online is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.