Understanding Menières Disease

In 1861, Prosper Ménière, a French physician described a medical condition characterized by episodes of vertigo, tinnitus or ringing or buzzing in the ears, fluctuating hears loss, and a sensation of pressure or fullness in the ear. The disease, which is now named after him, affects about 3-5 million Americans, and around 100,000 people are diagnosed every year in the country.

Causes of Ménière’s disease

The exact cause of Ménière’s disease remains unknown. But researchers are looking at a number of possible causes such as patterns of blood flow in the inner ear, viral infections, and noise pollutions. Because there are possibilities that the disease is hereditary, scientists are also investigating genetic factors as one of its possible causes.

The relationship between headache and Ménière’s disease is one promising research area. A study published in Germany in late 2002 revealed that people diagnosed with this disorder had 56% lifetime migraine prevalence, whereas the prevalence was only 25% for controls.

Another possible factor that causes the disorder is the loss of myelin (whitish fatty material) from the cells that surround the vestibular nerve fibers.

Symptoms of Ménière’s disease

Not all sufferers of Ménière’s disease have the same signs and symptoms. But the so-called "classic Ménière’s disease" comprises the following symptoms:

  • periodic episodes of abnormal sensation of movement (rotary vertigo) or dizziness;
  • progressive, fluctuating, and bilateral (in both ears) or unilateral (in one ear);
  • bilateral or unilateral perception of noises (tinnitus), often whooshing, roaring, or ringing);
  • feeling of pressure or fullness in the ears.

The disease usually starts with only one symptom, and eventually progresses. Doctors can make a diagnosis even when all signs symptoms are absent.

How to treat Ménière’s disease?

So far, there is no known cure for the disease. But medication, changes in behavior and diet, and surgery can improve or help control the symptoms.

Symptoms may be treated through injections or using oral medicines. Doctors usually prescribe antihistamines, such ascyclizine, meclizine, and diphenhydramine for sedating the vestibular system.

They also prescribe a barbiturate medication, such as pentobarbital to relieve the vertigo and sedate the patient. Anticholinergic drugs, like scopolamine or atropine, can minimize vomiting and nausea. Some scientists have found that antibiotics (streptomycin or gentamicin) can effectively relieve vertigo as well as tinnitus.

Health professionals also recommend changes in behavior and diet. They suggest the elimination of salt, alcohol, and caffeine to relieve the intensity and frequency of attacks. Quitting cigarette smoking and reducing stress levels may also help.

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that has been shown to help patients with Ménière’s disease. The World Health Organization also lists the disease as one that can be controlled effectively with acupuncture. If vertigo attacks are severe, disabling, or frequent and cannot be managed by other treatments, surgical procedures are often recommended.

Prevention

Since the real cause of the disease is not known, scientists cannot come up with exact strategies to prevent it. Studies continue on the biological and environmental variables that may be the cause of Ménière’s disease.

Scientists are also currently looking at the physiological elements of the labyrinth system and fluid involved in balance and hearing. More effective treatment and preventive strategies should become evident when these mechanisms are fully understood.