The inner ear can be affected by a rare disorder known as Ménière's disease, leading to tinnitus, vertigo and hearing loss.
What is Ménière's disease?
The components of the inner ear include the cochlea and semicircular canals, which are the organs of hearing and balance, respectively. These are the organs that are affected by Ménière's disease. The condition can affect one or both inner ears, and there are three main symptoms associated with it: intermittent attacks of vertigo (a spinning sensation) with fluctuating tinnitus (noises in the ear such as ringing, buzzing, humming, whistling or even music) and hearing loss.
The disorder has three main stages of progression, with some people having acute attacks as often as six to 11 times a year in the early stages. At first the condition usually affects just one ear. However, 15% of people will have Ménière's disease in both ears at the onset of the disease, and as it progresses up to 50% of people have symptoms in both ears.
Sometimes a person with Ménière's disease will have to change their life style due to the uncertainty of the symptoms or hearing loss, such as giving up driving or not being able to continue in a job. The unpredictability of the disease and hearing loss may lead to anxiety or depression in some people.
What are the causes of Ménière's disease?
The causes behind the development and progression of Ménière's disease are not known exactly, and there may be several factors involved including:
- An increase of pressure on fluid inside the endolymphatic sac in the inner ear.
- A family history of the disease.
- Vascular factors - there is an association between Ménière's disease and migraine.
- Allergy symptoms damaging the inner ear.
- Viral infection.
- An imbalance of sodium and potassium in the fluid of the inner ear.
There may also be unknown factors.
Who is at risk of getting Ménière's disease?
Ménière's disease occurs mostly in white people, and about 1 in every 1,000 people in the UK is affected by it. Although it can occur at any age, attacks most often start between the ages of 20 and 50 years. Men and women are equally likely to develop the disorder. If a member of your family has the disorder, you have a 7-10% chance of developing it, too.
What are the symptoms of Ménière's disease?
The three main symptoms that indicate Ménière's disease are vertigo, tinnitus and hearing loss, but a fourth one of experiencing fullness in the inner ear is more often being acknowledged, too. Other symptoms include nausea and vomiting, and severe attacks of vertigo are sometimes linked to diarrhoea, sweating and palpitations.
The symptoms vary between people and can occur in acute attacks that usually last for two to three hours, but they can also last for just minutes or a whole day. The attacks often occur in clusters, but there may be a remission for several months between them.
Drop attacks, where there are sudden unexplained falls without vertigo or losing consciousness, occur in 2-6% of people with Ménière's disease.