Meniere’s disease is a chronic inner ear disorder that causes recurring episodes of severe dizziness (vertigo), ear pressure, tinnitus and hearing loss. It typically affects only one ear, although some people experience symptoms in both ears.
An estimated 615,000 people in the U.S. have Meniere’s disease, with around 45,500 new cases diagnosed each year. Onset is most common in adults 40 to 60 years old, though it can develop at any age.
Meniere’s disease is a complex, debilitating condition that can significantly impact a person’s way of life. Symptoms come on without warning, which can limit participation in social, leisure and work activities. And because scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact cause of the disease, it’s difficult to predict or prevent.
The good news is that we have gained a much better understanding of Meniere’s disease in recent years. There’s no cure yet, but there are a variety of treatments to help alleviate and manage symptoms.
The four classic symptoms of Meniere’s disease are:
Many people with ear problems will experience these symptoms at some point, but a person with Meniere’s disease will typically have all four of them occur at once in several distinct episodes. If you have these symptoms, your doctor will perform an assessment to rule out other potential inner ear disorders. A Meniere’s disease diagnosis usually requires the presence of all four symptoms and at least two episodes of vertigo.
Each person’s experience with Meniere’s disease is different. For some, vertigo may be the first sign; for others, it may be hearing loss or tinnitus. However, it’s common for the disease to occur in the following stages:
Spontaneous episodes of vertigo that last anywhere from 20 minutes to 24 hours. During an episode, people may experience hearing loss, tinnitus and pressure in the affected ear.
Vertigo episodes continue but are usually less frequent and less severe, yet hearing loss and tinnitus worsen as damage to the inner ear progresses. Sometimes people go through several months of remission with no symptoms.
In the advanced stages of Meniere’s disease, vertigo episodes become even less frequent and in some cases stop altogether. Sometimes people experience “drop attacks,” sudden falls to the ground without warning. Hearing loss, tinnitus and balance issues continue.
The root cause of Meniere’s disease is unknown. However, researchers believe fluid buildup in the inner ear triggers the disease’s symptoms.
Canals in the inner ear contain hair-like receptors that detect movement and sending signals to the brain to help us maintain our balance. For this process to work correctly, fluid in the inner ear must be at the right volume and pressure. When the process is disrupted by too much fluid in the inner ear, symptoms such as dizziness can result. Researchers are still studying what initially causes these fluid changes.
To effectively control symptoms of Meniere’s disease, nutrition and diet should be carefully monitored.
Consider the following Meniere’s disease diet strategies:
Steer clear of tobacco products. Nicotine constricts blood flow to the inner ear, which may make symptoms worse. Studies show that smoking increases the risk of hearing loss.
Take steps to lower stress. Stress and fatigue can trigger episodes of vertigo.
Meniere’s disease can greatly limit a person’s stability, independence and hearing ability. Some people find that cognitive and behavioral therapies help them cope with the anxiety and stress of unpredictable attacks.
Additionally, online and in-person support groups can provide a place to share challenges, tips and concerns with others who are going through a similar experience.
Scientists have studied many potential causes and risk factors—such as viral infections, genetics and allergies—but have yet to find any factors that play a significant role in the development of the disease. People with a family history of Meniere’s disease may be more likely to develop it, but research has yet to confirm a hereditary link. Though much about the disease remains a mystery, recent research shows promise for patients.
Here are some steps you can take to promote the overall health of your ears and hearing: