New research from the University of Colorado School of Medicine might lead to the banishment of debilitating Meniere’s Disease through treatments aimed at targeting fluid in the inner ear.
What is Meniere’s?
Ménière’s disease is a chronic disorder of the inner ear that causes sudden episodes of vertigo – a dizzy, spinning sensation – hearing loss, tinnitus and a feeling of congestion that typically affects only one ear. These attacks often happen with no notice, but may also be preceded by muffled hearing or tinnitus. Meniere’s is severe and debilitating. It most often affects people who are in their 40s or 50s, though it can affect children and adults of any age. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 45,500 new cases of Meniere’s disease are diagnosed each year. The disease currently affects between three to five million people in the U.S., though not all are diagnosed.
The most troubling aspect of Meniere’s disease for many people is that it typically progresses to very severe hearing loss if not treated. Though there are treatments for Meniere’s – such as medication to reduce dizziness, the restriction of salt and cognitive therapy – surgery is typically the most effective way to avoid severe hearing loss, but often leads to a loss of balance and thus an increased risk of falls.
While there are various theories as to what causes Meniere’s disease, researchers at the University of Colorado believe they finally know the mechanisms of the disease that will pave the way for a cure. The researchers noticed a strong correlation between low blood flow to the brain that causes things like migraine headaches and Meniere’s disease.
They believe that Meniere’s is caused by a combination of two specific factors:
- Malformation of the inner ear that causes fluid buildup
- Risk factors for vascular disease, such as sleep apnea, smoking, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries due to fat or cholesterol buildups, which cause plaques) and migraines
University of Colorado researchers have proposed that the fluid buildup in the inner ear means there is a pressure-regulation problem that causes a decrease in blood flow to the ear. Vascular disease also lowers blood flow to the brain and ear. The combination of these two severely restricts blood flow, causing tinnitus, hearing loss and vertigo.
The good news, according to Dr. Carol Foster, an otolaryngologist and one of the study’s authors, is that this hypothesis can lead to new solutions for combating Meniere’s disease:
“If our hypothesis is confirmed, treatment of vascular risk factors may allow control of symptoms and result in a decreased need for surgeries that destroy the balance function in order to control the spell,” Foster said. “If attacks are controlled, the previously inevitable progression to severe hearing loss may be preventable in some cases.”