Ménière's disease is a rare disorder that affects the inner ear. It can cause vertigo, tinnitus, hearing loss, and often a feeling of pressure deep inside the ear. In the UK, it is estimated that around 1 in 1,000 people have Ménière's disease. It can occur at any age, but it most commonly affects people aged 40-60 years and is more common in women than in men. Sometimes there may be a family history of the disease.
The cause of Ménière's disease is not known, although it is thought to be caused by a problem with the pressure in the inner ear. The inner ear is made up of the cochlea (coiled tube responsible for hearing) and the vestibular system (semi-circular canals) that control balance.
The inner ear is fluid filled and the fluid is called endolymph. If the pressure of this fluid changes - for example, because there is too much fluid - it can result in symptoms such as vertigo and tinnitus. In most cases, the cause of the fluid pressure change is unknown, but it may be due to an allergy, Autoimmunity (immune system starts producing antibodies that attack your own tissues and organs), Genetic factors, or a chemical imbalance in the fluid (too little or too much sodium/potassium).
Each individual may present differing symptoms. The symptoms can appear as sudden attacks without warning, often lasting several hours. The symptoms may take a few days to disappear after each attack.
Vertigo is one the most common and noticeable symptoms of Ménière's disease and is the sensation that you or the environment is moving or spinning. A vertigo attack can last for just a few minutes, but could last for two to three hours. You may also feel dizzy, sick and off-balance. You may have difficulty standing or walking during an attack.
Tinnitus is the perception of noise with no external source. The noise comes from inside your body and is usually more noticeable when you are tired or when it is quiet, i.e. just before sleeping, as there is less background noise to distract you. The sounds that you can hear may be ringing, buzzing, humming, whistling, even music.
Ménière's disease progresses through different stages:
Early stage: Consists of sudden unpredictable attacks of vertigo, usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Some loss of hearing is experienced often with tinnitus at the same time. Your ear/s may also feel blocked, with a sense of fullness. Attacks of vertigo at this stage can last anything from 20 minutes to 24 hours and the length of time between attacks can also vary. Your hearing and the full sensation in your ear will usually return to normal between attacks.
Middle stage: Consists of continuing attacks of vertigo, but less severe. Tinnitus and hearing loss often become worse. You may have times where the symptoms go away for several months at a time.