Meniere's disease is a degenerative, incurable disorder of the inner ear that causes vertigo, vision problems and tinnitus on its way to possibly robbing a sufferer of the ability to hear.
"The way I can explain mine is on a good day, it sounded like the wind was howling and there was a siren. On a bad day, it sounded like I was standing in front of a jet engine in front of my left ear," said 2015 Grammy nominee Ryan Adams, describing the condition that came close to ending his music career in a 2011 interview with Us Weekly magazine. "As all that stuff was going on, I was losing my hearing." (Adams adjusted his lifestyle and diet and now is better able to manage the chronic disease.)
It's estimated that the disease affects about 200 of every 100,000 people, with the general age of onset in the 40s or 50s and a gradual rise in prevalence with advancing age, said Dr. Lewis Romett of Colorado ENT & Allergy in Colorado Springs.
While anecdotal evidence suggests the disorder might arise from a blow or injury to the ear, "it tends to come out of the blue. The ringing typically gets worse and becomes acute, recurring episodes, with a sudden onset of dizziness that could last hours or days," Romett said.
"It's been compared to being seasick," he said. "These folks, you can't drive, you can't walk, you can't sit and read."
Romett is one of 50 specialists in the U.S. participating in a clinical trial that could lead to the first FDA-approved drug for the treatment of Meniere's.
Treatments for the disease have focused on reducing and normalizing the fluid balance in the inner ears, typically through lifestyle changes - a low sodium diet and, in some cases, diuretics, or water pills, Romett said. More recently, small doses of steroids injected directly into the middle ear, through the eardrum, have shown very promising - if temporary - results.
"Steroids do a number of things. A lot of these attacks are associated with inflammation in the inner ear. If you can get rid of that inflammation, it will allow the fluid balance to normalize," Romett said.
The problem with the treatment is one of drainage. Once the steroid is injected in the inner ear, it immediately begins to exit via the eustachian tube. The drug now in clinical trials combines a common steroid with a liquid that transforms to a gel once inside the ear.
"We administer it in a substance that will stay in the ear and then release it (steroids) over a period of time," Romett said. "What we're looking for is a better way to treat this disease instead of having to inject someone a bunch of times."