Meniere disease is an inner ear disorder that causes vertigo, fluctuating sensorineural hearing loss, and tinnitus. There is no reliable diagnostic test. Vertigo and nausea are treated symptomatically with anticholinergics or benzodiazepines during acute attacks. Diuretics and a low-salt diet, the first line of treatment, often decrease the frequency and severity of episodes. For severe or refractory cases, the vestibular system can be ablated with topical gentamicin or surgery.
In Meniere disease, pressure and volume changes of the labyrinthine endolymph affect inner ear function. The etiology of endolymphatic fluid buildup is unknown. Risk factors include a family history of Meniere disease, preexisting autoimmune disorders, allergies, trauma to the head or ear, and, rarely, syphilis (even several decades previously). Peak incidence is between ages 20 and 50.
Symptoms and Signs
Patients have sudden attacks of vertigo that usually last for 1 to 6 h but that can (rarely) last up to 24 h, usually with nausea and vomiting. Accompanying symptoms include diaphoresis, diarrhea, and gait unsteadiness. Tinnitus in the affected ear may be constant or intermittent, buzzing or roaring; it is not related to position or motion. Hearing impairment, typically affecting low frequencies, may follow. Before and during an episode, most patients sense fullness or pressure in the affected ear. In a majority of patients, only one ear is affected.
During the early stages, symptoms remit between episodes; symptom-free interludes may last > 1 yr. As the disease progresses, however, hearing impairment persists and gradually worsens, and tinnitus may be constant.
The diagnosis, made clinically, is primarily one of exclusion. Similar symptoms can result from vestibular migraine, viral labyrinthitis or neuritis, a cerebellopontine angle tumor (eg, acoustic neuroma), or a brain stem stroke. Although bilateral Meniere disease can occur, bilateral symptoms increase the likelihood of an alternate diagnosis (eg, vestibular migraine).
Patients with suggestive symptoms should have an audiogram and an MRI (with gadolinium enhancement) of the CNS with attention to the internal auditory canals to exclude other causes. Audiogram typically shows a low-frequency sensorineural hearing loss in the affected ear that fluctuates between tests. The Rinne test and the Weber test also may indicate sensorineural hearing loss (see Physical examination).
On examination during an acute attack, the patient has nystagmus and falls to the affected side. Between attacks, the examination may be entirely normal. However, in long-standing or refractory cases with associated labyrinthine hypofunction, the Fukuda stepping test (marching in place with eyes closed) causes the patient to turn toward the affected ear, consistent with a unilateral labyrinthine lesion. The Halmagyi head thrust maneuver is another technique that is used to show unilateral labyrinthine dysfunction. In the Halmagyi maneuver, the examiner has the patient visually fixate on a target straight ahead (eg, the examiner's nose). The examiner then rotates the patient's head 15 to 30° to one side as rapidly as possible while observing the patient's eyes. When vestibular function on the side to which the head has been rotated is normal, the patient's eyes remain fixated on the target. When vestibular function is impaired on the side to which the head has been rotated, the vestibulo-ocular reflex fails and the patient's eyes do not remain fixated on the target but instead transiently follow the head rotation and then quickly and voluntarily return back to the target (called delayed catch-up saccades).
Meniere disease tends to be self-limited. Treatment of an acute attack is aimed at symptom relief and done in a staged fashion; the least invasive measures are done first, and then ablative procedures are done if the measures fail. Anticholinergic antiemetics (eg, prochlorperazine or promethazine 25 mg rectally or 10 mg po q 6 to 8 h) can minimize vagal-mediated GI symptoms; ondansetron is a 2nd-line antiemetic. Antihistamines (eg, diphenhydramine, meclizine, or cyclizine 50 mg po q 6 h) or benzodiazepines (eg, diazepam 5 mg po q 6 to 8 h) are used to sedate the vestibular system. Neither antihistamines nor benzodiazepines are effective as prophylactic treatment. Some physicians also use an oral corticosteroid burst (eg, prednisone 60 mg po once/day for 1 wk, tapered over another wk) or intratympanic dexamethasone injections for an acute episode.
A low-salt (< 1.5 g/day) diet, avoidance of alcohol and caffeine, and a diuretic (eg, hydrochlorothiazide 25 mg po once/day or acetazolamide 250 mg po bid) may help prevent vertigo and are useful for many patients.
Although more invasive, endolymphatic sac decompression relieves vertigo in a majority of patients, spares vestibular function, and poses minimal risk of hearing loss. Thus this procedure is still classified as a vestibular-sparing treatment.
When vestibular-sparing treatments fail, an ablative procedure is considered. Intratympanic gentamicin (chemical labyrinthectomy— typically 0.5 mL of a 40 mg/mL concentration) is injected through the tympanic membrane. Follow-up with serial audiometry is recommended to distinguish hearing loss from cochleotoxicity. The injection can be repeated in 4 wk if vertigo persists without hearing loss.
Ablative surgery is reserved for patients with frequent, severely debilitating episodes who are unresponsive to these other modalities. Vestibular neurectomy (an intracranial procedure) relieves vertigo in about 95% of patients and usually preserves hearing. A surgical labyrinthectomy is done only if preexisting hearing loss is profound.
Unfortunately, there is no known way to prevent the natural progression of hearing loss. Most patients sustain moderate to severe sensorineural hearing loss in the affected ear within 10 to 15 yr.
Last full review/revision October 2012 by Lawrence R. Lustig, MD
Content last modified September 2013