What are the different types of inner ear disorders? The following write-up provides information on the causes, symptoms and treatment of medical conditions that may affect the inner ear.
The human ear is a sensory organ that not only facilitates hearing, but also helps in maintaining the balance and equilibrium of the body. It is divided into outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. The innermost section of the ear comprises the cochlea and the vestibular system. The cochlea receives vibrations from auditory ossicles. It changes them into nerve impulses. These impulses are then sent to the brain via the auditory nerve. The brain interprets these impulses and these are recognized as sounds. Hearing problems occur due to inflammation or infections. Since this part of the ear also controls balance, inner ear infections can also cause vertigo or dizziness.
The symptoms will depend on the type of infection one is suffering from. Here are some of the common symptoms that may be experienced by those who are affected by such infections or disorders:
- Hearing loss
- Ear pain
- Ringing in the ear
- Motion sickness
- Slurred speech
- Jumping vision
Medical Conditions Affecting the Inner Ear
Ear infections are quite common in newborns as their immune system is not completely developed. Mumps, chickenpox or influenza are some of the viral infections that could cause an inner ear infection. Viruses or bacteria could be the causal organisms for conditions such as meningitis, pneumonia and sinusitis. Inflammation of the inner ear is referred to as labyrinthitis. It is usually triggered by upper respiratory tract infections. The symptoms include vertigo, tinnitus or hearing loss. Besides these conditions, Meniere’s disease, tinnitus, autoimmune inner ear disease (AIED), ototoxicity, acoustic neuroma, and perilymph fistula are some of the conditions that may affect the inner ear.
Meniere’s disease is associated with excessive fluid buildup in the innermost section of the ear. This disease is characterized by a feeling of fullness in the ear, sudden vertigo or ringing in the ear. AIED is a rare disease that occurs when the immune cells or the antibodies target the cells in the inner ear. This is due to the immune system’s inability to distinguish between the disease-causing agents and the body’s own cells. The affected individual could suffer from rapidly progressive bilateral sensorineural hearing loss. Usually, sudden hearing loss in the affected ear is followed by hearing loss in the other ear. Other symptoms that the patient could experience include fullness in the ear, tinnitus or vertigo.
Tinnitus is an ear problem that is characterized by ringing in the ears. It occurs as a result of damage to the tiny hair cells in this part of the ear. The function of these hair cells is to pick up sound vibrations and send these electrical impulses through the auditory nerve to the brain. When the hair cells get damaged, the sound vibrations are picked up continuously. The continuous signals or impulses result in ringing. The damage to the hair cells can be caused due to loud noise, ear infections, fluid accumulation, eardrum perforation or prolonged use of certain drugs.
Since the inner ear also controls balance, infections can cause balance disorders. Those suffering from balance disorders find it hard to focus on moving objects. Dizziness, motion sickness and vertigo are signs that are commonly observed in patients suffering from vestibular system disorders. Vestibular neuronitis is one such condition that is characterized by inflammation of the vestibular nerve. It is closely related to labyrinthitis. The symptoms of these conditions are similar, with one exception. Unlike labyrinthitis, vestibular neuronitis does not cause changes in hearing.
Acoustic neuroma is characterized by the development of a tumor on the vestibular cochlear nerve, which is the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. Though the tumor is benign and slow-growing, symptoms such as hearing loss, tinnitus, dizziness, vertigo, or loss of balance could be experienced by the patients due to the damage to the nerves. Perilymph fistula is a condition that is caused due to the leakage of fluid from the innermost section of the ear to the middle ear. Ototoxicity refers to damage to the structures in the inner ear due to toxins. It is usually caused by excessive use of certain drugs. This condition may be characterized by vertigo, tinnitus or hearing loss.
If a person has been experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, he/she must consult an ENT specialist soon.
» The diagnostic tests that are often conducted include hearing tests, balance tests, brain function tests, and imaging procedures such as CT scan or a magnetic resonance imaging scan (MRI).
» If the inflammation is caused by bacteria, antibiotics are prescribed. Anti-viral drugs are prescribed for treating infections caused by viruses. If symptoms are severe, corticosteroids are recommended. The treatment of Meniere’s disease involves the use of drugs such as vestibular sedatives, diuretics, anti-nausea medication or antibiotics. A low salt diet might also help in alleviating the symptoms of tinnitus and Meniere’s disease to some extent.
» Vestibular rehabilitation exercises are suggested for people affected by vestibular disorders. Vestibular rehabilitation therapy helps in improving the balance. Since such ear problems could lead to dizziness, vertigo and balance problems, the patient needs to take ample rest and avoid indulging in activities that may aggravate the condition.
» Doctors usually follow a symptomatic approach. Drugs are prescribed for alleviating the symptoms experienced by the patient. The withdrawal of the drug causing ototoxicity is the first step for treating ototoxicity. Immunosuppressant drugs and anti-inflammatory drugs are prescribed for treating AIED.
» Surgery is recommended for treating conditions such as perilymph fistula, Meniere’s disease and acoustic neuroma if the symptoms are severe, and the patient is not responding well to the conservative treatment options.
On a concluding note, a timely diagnosis and treatment is essential for alleviating the symptoms of any medical condition affecting the inner ear. Certain conditions can cause profound hearing loss. So, if you have been experiencing any of the aforementioned symptoms, consult an ENT specialist immediately.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.