(Inner Ear Dysfunction, Meniere's Syndrome)

What is Labyrinthitis?

The "ear" really consists of three major parts: an outer visible ear and canal, a middle ear space, and a portion deeply embedded in the bone of the skull called the inner ear. When your doctor looks into your ear with a light, he or she is looking down the canal leading to the eardrum. The middle ear space lies on the other side of the eardrum and houses the bones of hearing (see Hearing Loss); it is this space that fills with infected fluid when children (or adults, for that matter) develop an ear infection. Another thin membrane over a "window" in the bone separates this middle ear space from the inner ear deeper in the skull. Your physician cannot see the inner ear when looking into your ear.

LabyrinthitisThe inner ear serves two basic functions: hearing and balance. We have discussed the hearing portion of the inner ear under Hearing Loss in this section; therefore, in this space, we will examine only the balance center of the inner ear.

The balance center—or labyrinth—consists of three hollow halfcircle canals oriented clover-leaf fashion in three directions. Tiny hair-like nerve endings line the canals, each of which contains a precise amount of fluid (called endolymph) and a tiny pebble. When you move, the pebble in each of the three canals on each side of your head rolls over the hair-like nerve fibers, stimulating them. This stimulation causes the signals to travel to the brain, which averages all the signals from the six canals and translates them into a proper sense of what's happening. In effect, the brain reads the signals and tells you, "Okay, now you're standing up, now you're moving right, now you're bending down." so that your body can balance. As long as this simple system functions normally, all is literally "right" with the world. But what happens if a viral infection or something else causes too much fluid to build up in one or more of the canals, or pressure from infection in the middle ear space presses inward on the membrane of the inner ear? The pebble can't roll at the set speed and it sends haywire signals. The poor brain doesn't know what to believe: The signals from this canal say we'm moving to the right, but the ones from that one say we'm lying down, and the ones from this other one tell us we'm bending over. The brain can't integrate these different signals, and so it doesn't. The upshot is your balance goes out the window, and you feel like you're spinning around or that the world is spinning around. You become "seasick" on dry land.

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