Understanding ear health conditions like labyrinthitis enables you to make better, more informed decisions about your health.
Imagine an assembly line dedicated to creating a machine. As the frame of the machine comes down the line, workers perform specific tasks, adding specialized pieces to assemble a complete product. With everyone performing their role, the system runs successfully and creates a useful product. But what happens if one worker steps away? Suddenly, with no one to take care of their role, crucial pieces aren’t put in place, resulting in a malfunctioning machine.
This is just one example of an interconnected system, where success relies on individual pieces working together. In truth, it’s not far off from how the systems in our bodies work to get us through the day. One of these connected systems is hearing and balance, which help us orient ourselves and maintain our equilibrium. In this delicate system, a disruption can result in a health condition like labyrinthitis, which can affect our daily lives as well as ear health and overall wellness.
A quick description of labyrinthitis (pronounced “lab-uh-rinth-itis”) might make it sound like a fairly simple thing: inflammation of the inner ear and the nerves that connect the area to the brain. But this condition is different than just an itchy ear or an earache—it can manifest in multiple symptoms that disrupt your health and wellbeing. Labyrinthitis takes its maze-like name from the part of your ear called the labyrinth, which plays an essential part in the anatomical process of hearing.
Under normal circumstances, soundwaves enter the outer part of the ear and move through the ear canal to hit the outer layer of the eardrum. This causes the eardrum and three small bones inside the middle ear to vibrate. These vibrations are then amplified to the inner ear, where they travel through the fluid in the cochlea and move tiny hair cells located inside. The movement of the hair cells creates electrical signals that travel along the auditory nerve to the hearing center in the brain, where they are interpreted as sounds.
The hair cells and the fluid canals around them in the inner ear also help you maintain your sense of balance, letting your brain know which direction you’re facing as the fluid moves. All of these nerves and organs form the intricate system of the labyrinth.
Labyrinthitis occurs when the nerves within the inner ear become infected, causing irritation and swelling . This inflammation disrupts the system, leading to discomfort in the ear, but also a disturbance in your hearing and balance. This comes from your brain trying to make sense of the signals that don't match between a healthy labyrinth and an infected one. Think of the old adage of “trying to fit a square peg into a round hole”: the brain is attempting to send information through the hearing center, but the inflammation makes receiving those signals almost impossible.
The most common labyrinthitis symptoms stem from this mismatch of information going to the brain. This means labyrinthitis symptoms come and go as the brain processes sound and can vary in severity. People dealing with the condition usually report that symptoms start suddenly and progress as the day goes on. Symptoms include:
This condition can also be recognized by symptoms of labyrinthitis anxiety. The fear of having a dizzy spell, combined with vertigo and worries about falling in public can create overwhelming anxiety, fear and depression. This negative feedback loop can exacerbate the already difficult experience of the inner ear condition.
A connection is often drawn between labyrinthitis and another inner ear condition called vestibular neuritis because both have symptoms related to balance and hearing issues. While there are many similarities, the location of the inflammation is the key differentiator in understanding labyrinthitis vs. vestibular neuritis.
Labyrinthitis refers to the swelling of both the vestibular and the cochlear areas of the vestibulocochlear nerve, which affects balance and hearing. Vestibular neuritis, on the other hand, deals with the swelling of only the vestibular part of vestibulocochlear nerve, which affects balance. The differences may be slight, but knowing the difference between the two can mean a better understanding of how to best treat your symptoms.
Inflammation of the labyrinth is most commonly caused by viral infections, but it can also be caused by bacteria. The most common causes include:
While infections are generally the root of most cases of labyrinthitis, behaviors that weaken the immune system can trigger the condition. If you smoke, experience extra stress, drink alcohol excessively or have a history of allergies, you may be putting yourself at a higher risk of developing viral labyrinthitis. In some cases, certain drugs such as antidepressants, anti-inflammatories and some diabetes medications can also prompt labyrinthitis in some individuals as well.
Because of its connection to illnesses and these numerous risk factors, people dealing with this condition may ask themselves “is labyrinthitis contagious?” Luckily, labyrinthitis isn’t contagious in and of itself, but if you might catch a cold or the flu from someone else, it could weaken your immune system and potentially trigger labyrinthitis.
When dealing with symptoms like vertigo and tinnitus, labyrinthitis sufferers might ask a simple, but urgent, question: how long does labyrinthitis last? Fortunately, finding relief from this condition is possible. However, if left untreated, it can lead to more significant hearing health problems. Understanding the best approach to treating your symptoms can mean protecting your ear health for the future.
Diagnosing this condition depends greatly on what symptoms you’re experiencing. Labyrinthitis can be tricky to pinpoint at first because several other conditions present with the same symptoms.
If you develop acute labyrinthitis symptoms that are affecting your daily life, such as vertigo, nausea, balance issues or hearing loss, make an appointment with your doctor right away to develop a treatment plan. Your healthcare provider will ask you questions, assess your hearing, balance and other nervous system functions and potentially run tests to rule out other problems. These tests can include:
Once you receive an official diagnosis, your labyrinthitis treatment will depend on the root cause of your condition. If it comes from a virus, you may be prescribed antiviral medications. If it comes from bacteria, you’ll likely take an antibiotic.
Corticosteroids or antihistamines ( which can reduce nerve inflammation), are sometimes prescribed as labyrinthitis medications, along with medicines to control dizziness or nausea. While they won’t solve causes like viral infections, hearing aids can be a useful tool in combating symptoms of labyrinthitis. If you’re struggling with dizziness or a loss of balance, clearly processing sound through your hearing aids can help you better navigate your environment and maintain stability to avoid falls.
While medications can be a great tool for managing labyrinthitis symptoms, there are several dos and don'ts to take note of:
In most cases, viral labyrinthitis recovery time is relatively short and symptoms pass on their own in a few weeks. However, if your symptoms don’t resolve in that time, consult your doctor.
Persistent symptoms can be a sign of chronic labyrinthitis and may require additional therapy to treat. Don’t wait for symptoms to get worse; treating your inner ear issues in a timely manner can reduce the possibility that your condition will turn into a long-term problem like permanent hearing loss or chronic vertigo.
Despite its various triggers and risk factors, ear health conditions like labyrinthitis don’t have to be intimidating or overwhelming. By developing an understanding of how health conditions can affect your body’s interconnected systems, you can find solutions that protect your ear health and can help avoid discomfort.
If you’re experiencing tinnitus or related labyrinthitis symptoms and you have questions, book an appointment with a hearing care professional at your local Miracle-Ear and learn more about your hearing health.