MFF0037: Vestibulitis


Medical Fun Facts logo from Gary Lum

If I’ve timed this correctly, tonight’s show is dropping on Monday 06 February 2017 and I should be back in Canberra after being in Delhi for work. Did you know about 18 million people live in Delhi?

Tonight’s episode is about something beginning with the letter V. So what is the vestibulitis? If you go to Google and search for vestibulitis the first thing that may appear is vulvar vestibulitis. I don’t want listeners to think the only thing I think about is below the waist stuff so tonight I’m sharing some facts about vestibular neuritis and labyrinthitis.

In 2000, I was sitting in my home office in Darwin doing some work. I had a sudden feeling of loss of hearing and balance. I went to stand up and fell over onto my left side.

I didn’t have any pain but I couldn’t hear anything in my left ear. I tried to get up and fell over again. I crawled to my bed, got on and laid out flat. The ceiling was spinning.

I should have gone to see my friend Gus who is an ear nose and throat surgeon the following morning but I didn’t, I stayed in bed. It was a bad move. I found out later, I should have seen him and started steroids as soon as possible.

I’m still deaf in my left ear, if I stand up and close my eyes I still sway, but I’ve learnt how to get around without looking like I’m intoxicated.

Vestibular neuritis and labyrinthitis is inflammation of the inner ear and/or the nerve connecting the inner ear to the brain. When one side is affected your brain has to cope with a sudden change in messaging, normally the brain receives balance signals from both sides, but when one side is affected, the brain has to compensate. You may feel vertigo and have problems with hearing and balance. Inflammation of the nerve going to your brain can also result in tinnitus. I have tinnitus and it sucks.

I can no longer comfortably sit in a room with background noise and hear what people are saying. As the background noise increases and as I try harder to hear what someone might be saying to me, the worse my tinnitus gets. It gets to a point where I want to leave and find a quiet place. In a quiet room or office, I can carry on a conversation as well as anyone else. In a pub or bar, especially if there’s music playing, I have no hope. I generally refuse invitations to outings where I expect there will be ambient noise. People get tired of me asking to repeat what they say and to speak more loudly. I get tired of asking.

Because my left ear is affected, I have to hold the telephone to my right ear. Writing notes while speaking with referring doctors when I’m discussing pathology results means I get a sore neck cradling the telephone between my head and neck while I write. In my main job, I have a wireless earpiece which makes a huge difference.

The cause of vestibular neuritis and labyrinthitis is usually a viral infection, often a virus in the herpes family of viruses.

In some people the infection is short and the damage is temporary and recovery is complete. In people like me, with nerve damage, the damage is lifelong, some recovery occurs but it’s partial and I can’t stand with my eyes closed without swaying. I am deaf and I have tinnitus. It makes sleeping difficult because it’s like hearing cicadas in my head all night.

If you ever get a sudden onset of an intense spinning sensation, often with nausea, vomiting and a feeling of being unsteady, go see your doctor. You may need a referral to a specialist and you’ll probably require some investigations like audiology and maybe an MRI of your head to exclude a malignancy. I’ve had two now and I’m disappointed about the size and shape of my brain. It’s very unimpressive.

If you disagree with anything in these podcasts or if you would like to voice a different view, please feel free to write a comment. If I have said something incorrect I welcome correction. Please also feel free to share your comments on social media.

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