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Some people with Ménière's disease have attacks that start with tinnitus (ear noises), a loss of hearing, or a full feeling or pressure in the affected ear. It is important to remember that all of these symptoms are unpredictable. Typically, the attack is characterized by a combination of vertigo, tinnitus, and hearing loss lasting several hours. People experience these discomforts at varying frequencies, durations, and intensities. Some may feel slight vertigo a few times a year. Others may be occasionally disturbed by intense, uncontrollable tinnitus while sleeping. Affected people may also notice hearing loss or feel unsteady for prolonged periods. Other occasional symptoms of Ménière's disease may include headaches, abdominal discomfort, and diarrhea. A person's hearing tends to recover between attacks but over time may become worse. Meniere's disease usually starts in one ear but it may extend to involve both ears over time.
The hallmark of Ménière's disease is the fluctuation, waxing and waning of symptoms. Proper diagnosis of Ménière's disease entails several procedures, including a medical history interview; a physical examination; hearing and balance tests; and medical imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Accurate measurement and characterization of hearing loss are of critical importance in the diagnosis of Ménière's disease.
Through the use of several types of hearing tests, physicians can characterize hearing loss as being sensory (arising from the inner ear) or neural (arising from the hearing nerve). Recording the auditory brain stem response, which measures electrical activity in the hearing nerve and brain stem, is useful in differentiating between these two types of hearing loss. Electrocochleography, recording the electrical activity of the inner ear in response to sound, helps confirm the diagnosis.
To test the vestibular or balance system, physicians irrigate the ears with warm and cool water or air. This procedure, known as caloric testing, results in nystagmus, rapid eye movements that can help a physician analyze a balance disorder. Since tumor growth can produce symptoms similar to Ménière's disease, an MRI is a useful test to determine whether a tumor is causing the patient's vertigo and hearing loss.
At the present time there is no cure for Ménière's disease, but there are several safe and effective medical and surgical therapies that are available to help individuals cope with the symptoms. The symptoms of the disease are often controlled successfully by reducing the body’s retention of fluids through dietary changes (such as a low-salt or salt-free diet and no caffeine or alcohol). Medications such as antihistamines, anticholinergics, and diuretics may lower endolymphatic pressure by reducing the amount of endolymphatic fluid. Eliminating tobacco use and reducing stress levels may also help lessen the severity of symptoms.
Symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo, and associated nausea and vomiting may respond to sedative/hypnotics, benzodiazepines like diazepam and anti-emetics.
Different surgical procedures are an option for individuals with persistent, debilitating vertigo. Labyrinthectomy (removal of the inner ear sense organ) can effectively control vertigo, but sacrifices hearing and is reserved for patients with nonfunctional hearing in the affected ear. Vestibular neurectomy, selectively severing a nerve from the affected inner ear organ, usually controls the vertigo while preserving hearing but carries surgical risks. Recently, the administration of the ototoxic antibiotic gentamycin directly into the middle ear space has gained popularity worldwide for the control of vertigo associated with Ménière's disease.
An article published in the journal Lancet in August 2008, written by Sajjadi and Paparella, reviews treatment options and strategies for individuals with Ménière's disease. Click here to view the abstract of this article. To obtain the complete article, the NLM Web site has a page for locating libraries in your area that can provide direct access to journals (print or online) or where you can get articles through interlibrary loan and Loansome Doc (an NLM document-ordering service). Click on NLM Web site to access this page or go to the following link: http://nnlm.gov/members/. You can also contact the NLM toll-free at 888-346-3656 to locate libraries in your area.