Labyrinthitis is a disorder that affects the inner ear. While anyone can develop labyrinthitis, persons between the ages of 30 and 60 years are slightly more at risk, regardless of their gender. Most of the time, only one ear is affected.
The ear consists of three basic parts: the outer, the middle and the inner ear. The outer ear, which is the visible part, channels sound towards the eardrum which serves to separate the outer ear from the middle ear. The middle ear mainly consists of the ossicles which are three small bones that are connected to the eardrum. As they vibrate, they amplify sound. For its part, the inner ear, which is filled with fluid, is made up of the cochlea, responsible for hearing and the semi-circular canals, responsible for maintaining balance. The cochlea and the semi-circular canals transmit signals to the brain through the vestibular nerve. The complex system of chambers in the inner ear is also known as the labyrinth.
Labyrinthitis is caused by an inflammation of the inner ear (labyrinth), hence its name. Most of the time, it is the result of an inflammation of the vestibular nerve which in turn transmits incoherent signals to the brain. Consequently, persons with labyrinthitis experience balance problemsand possibly hearing problems on the affected side.
The cause of labyrinthitis remains a mystery. We do know however, that certain factors can increase one's chances of developing the disorder, including:
- Alcohol abuse;
- Certain medications (Aspirin™, etc.);
- Fatigue or stress;
- Head injury or trauma;
- Lung infection;
- Otitis media.
Labyrinthitis can cause the following symptoms:
- Tinnitus (relentless buzzing or ringing in the ears);
- Reduced hearing acuity or distortion of sounds in the affected ear;
- Dizziness and a general ill feeling;
- Nausea, vomiting;
- Nystagmus or uncontrollable eye movements;
- Loss of balance;
Labyrinthitis is often difficult to diagnose since anomalies are seldom revealed upon examination. Oftentimes, the physician must conduct various tests to eliminate possible sources of vertigo or malaise. Hearing tests and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are commonly used.
Treatment and Prevention
Labyrinthitis typically disappears on its own within three to six weeks. Treatments are therefore intended to relieve symptoms. Your physician may prescribe antinauseants (ex. Gravol™), antivertigo medication (ex. Serc™) or tranquilizers. If the labyrinthitis is accompanied by otitis, antibiotics or antivirals may be required.
Certain measures may help alleviate symptoms:
- Avoid moving your head as much as possible.
- Avoid bright light and reading when experiencing vertigo.
- Avoid sudden movements.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine.