• <div class="section1"> Definition

    Ménière's disease is a condition characterized by recurrent vertigo (dizziness), hearing loss, and tinnitus (a roaring, buzzing or ringing sound in the ears).


    Ménière's disease was named for the French physician Prosper Ménière, who first described the illness in 1861. It is an abnormality within the inner ear. A fluid called endolymph moves in the membranous labyrinth or semicircular canals within the bony labyrinth inside the inner ear. When the head or body moves, the endolymph moves, causing nerve receptors in the membranous labyrinth to send signals to the brain about the body's motion. A change in the volume of the endolymph fluid, or swelling or rupture of the membranous labyrinth, is thought to result in Ménière's disease symptoms.

    Causes and symptoms

    The cause of Ménière's disease is unknown as of 2002; however, scientists are studying several possible causes, including noise pollution, viral infections, or alterations in the patterns of blood flow in the structures of the inner ear. Since Ménière's disease sometimes runs in families, researchers are also looking into genetic factors as possible causes of the disorder.

    One area of research that shows promise is the possible relationship between Ménière's disease and migraine headache. Dr. Ménière himself suggested the possibility of a link, but early studies yielded conflicting results. A rigorous German study published in late 2002 reported that the lifetime prevalence of migraine was 56% in patients diagnosed with Ménière's disease as compared to 25% for controls. The researchers noted that further work is necessary to determine the exact nature of the relationship between the two disorders.

    A study published in late 2002 reported that there is a significant increase in the number of CD4 cells in the blood of patients having an acute attack of Ménière's disease. CD4 cells are a subtype of T cells, which are produced in the thymus gland and regulate the immune system's response to infected or malignant cells. Further research is needed to clarify the role of these cells in Ménière's disease.

    Another possible factor in the development of Ménière's disease is the loss of myelin from the cells surrounding the vestibular nerve fibers. Myelin is a whitish fatty material in the cell membrane of the Schwann cells that form a sheath around certain nerve cells. It acts like an electrical insulator. A team of researchers at the University of Virginia reported in 2002 that the vestibular nerve cells in patients with unilateral Ménière's disease are demyelinated; that is, they have lost their protective “insulation.” The researchers are investigating the possibility that a viral disease or disorder of the immune system is responsible for the demyelination of the vestibular nerve cells.


    The symptoms of Ménière's disease are associated with a change in fluid volume within the labyrinth of the inner ear. Symptoms include severe dizziness or vertigo, tinnitus, hearing loss, and the sensation of pain or pressure in the affected ear. Symptoms appear suddenly, last up to several hours, and can occur as often as daily to as infrequently as once a year. A typical attack includes vertigo, tinnitus, and hearing loss; however, some individuals with Ménière's disease may experience a single symptom, like an occasional bout of slight dizziness or periodic, intense ringing in the ear. Attacks of severe vertigo can force the sufferer to have to sit or lie down, and may be accompanied by headache, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Hearing tends to recover between attacks, but becomes progressively worse over time.

    Ménière's disease usually starts between the ages of 20 and 50 years; however, it is not uncommon for elderly people to develop the disease without a previous history of symptoms. Ménière's disease affects men and women in equal numbers. In most patients only one ear is affected but in about 15% both ears are involved.


    An estimated 3–5 million people in the United States have Ménière's disease, and almost 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. Diagnosis is based on medical history, physical examination, hearing and balance tests, and medical imaging with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

    Several types of tests may be used to diagnose the disease and to evaluation the extent of hearing loss. In patients with Ménière's disease, audiometric tests (hearing tests) usually indicate a sensory type of hearing loss in the affected ear. Speech discrimination or the ability to distinguish between words that sound alike is often diminished. In about 50% of patients, the balance function is reduced in the affected ear. An electronystagnograph (ENG) may be used to evaluate balance. Since the eyes and ears work together through the nervous system to coordinate balance, measurement of eye movements can be used to test the balance system. For this test, the patient is seated in a darkened room and recording electrodes, similar to those used with a heart monitor, are placed near the eyes. Warm and cool water or air are gently introduced into the each ear canal and eye movements are recorded.

    Another test that may be used is an electrocochleograph (EcoG), which can measure increased inner ear fluid pressure.


    There is no cure for Ménière's disease, but medication, surgery, and dietary and behavioral changes, can help control or improve the symptoms.


    Symptoms of Ménière's disease may be treated with a variety of oral medicine or through injections. Antihistamines, like diphenhydramine, meclizine, and cyclizine can be prescribed to sedate the vestibular system. A barbiturate medication like pentobarbital may be used to completely sedate the patient and relieve the vertigo. Anticholinergic drugs, like atropine or scopolamine, can help minimize nausea and vomiting. Diazepam has been found to be particularly effective for relief of vertigo and nausea in Ménière's disease. There have been some reports of successful control of vertigo after antibiotics (gentamicin or streptomycin) or a steroid medication (dexamethasone) are injected directly into the inner ear. Some researchers have found that gentamicin is effective in relieving tinnitus as well as vertigo.

    A newer medication that appears to be effective in treating the vertigo associated with Ménière's disease is flunarizine, which is sold under the trade name Sibelium. Flunarizine is a calcium channel blocker and anticonvulsant that is presently used to treat Parkinson's disease, migraine headache, and other circulatory disorders that affect the brain.

    Surgical procedures

    Surgical procedures may be recommended if the vertigo attacks are frequent, severe, or disabling and cannot be controlled by other treatments. The most common surgical treatment is insertion of a small tube or shunt to drain some of the fluid from the canal. This treatment usually preserves hearing and controls vertigo in about one-half to two-thirds of cases, but it is not a permanent cure in all patients.

    The vestibular nerve leads from the inner ear to the brain and is responsible for conducting nerve impulses related to balance. A vestibular neurectomy is a procedure where this nerve is cut so the distorted impulses causing dizziness no longer reach the brain. This procedure permanently cures the majority of patients and hearing is preserved in most cases. There is a slight risk that hearing or facial muscle control will be affected.

    A labyrinthectomy is a surgical procedure in which the balance and hearing mechanism in the inner ear are destroyed on one side. This procedure is considered when the patient has poor hearing in the affected ear. Labyrinthectomy results in the highest rates of control of vertigo attacks, however, it also causes complete deafness in the affected ear.

    Alternative treatment

    Changes in diet and behavior are sometimes recommended. Eliminating caffeine, alcohol, and salt may relieve the frequency and intensity of attacks in some people with Ménière's disease. Reducing stress levels and eliminating tobacco use may also help.

    Acupuncture is an alternative treatment that has been shown to help patients with Ménière's disease. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists Ménière's disease as one of 104 conditions that can be treated effectively with acupuncture.


    Ménière's disease is a complex and unpredictable condition for which there is no cure. The vertigo associated with the disease can generally be managed or eliminated with medications and surgery. Hearing tends to become worse over time, and some of the surgical procedures recommended, in fact, cause deafness.


    Since the cause of Ménière's disease is unknown as of 2002, there are no current strategies for its prevention. Research continues on the environmental and biological factors that may cause Ménière's disease or induce an attack, as well as on the physiological components of the fluid and labyrinth system involved in hearing and balance. Preventive strategies and more effective treatment should become evident once these mechanisms are better understood.

    Source: The Gale Group. Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine, 3rd ed.

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