What Is Labyrinthitis?
Labyrinthitis means an inflammation of the inner ear structure called the labyrinth. Sometimes the term labyrinthitis refers to other causes of inner ear problems that have no inflammation because those problems produce similar symptoms.
- You have a labyrinth in each of your inner ears, encased in thick bone near the base of your skull. As the name implies, the labyrinth is a maze of interconnected fluid-filled channels and canals.
- Half of the labyrinth, the cochlea, is shaped like a snail's shell. It sends information about sounds to the brain. The other half looks something like a gyroscope with 3 semicircular canals connected to an open cavern or vestibule.
- The vestibule portion of the labyrinth sends information to the brain regarding the position and movement of your head. Any disturbance of the vestibule can lead to faulty information going to your brain.
- Your eyes also send positioning information to your brain. When information from the labyrinth and the eyes don't match, the brain has trouble interpreting what is happening. This misinterpreting often leads to a sensation that you are spinning (vertigo) or a feeling that you are moving when in fact you are remaining still. Feelings of motion sickness (nausea and vomiting) often follow. Sometimes you will experience hearing loss or abnormal sounds such as a high- or low-pitched ringing (tinnitus).
What Causes Labyrinthitis?
Many times, you cannot determine the cause of labyrinthitis. Often, the condition follows a viral illness such as a cold or the flu. Viruses, or your body's immune response to them, may cause inflammation that results in labyrinthitis.
Other potential causes are these:
- Trauma or injury to your head or ear (similar to concussion)
- Bacterial infections: If found in nearby structures such as your middle ear, such infections may cause the following:
- Fluid to collect in the labyrinth (serous labyrinthitis)
- Fluid to directly invade the labyrinth, causing pus-producing (suppurative) labyrinthitis
- Alcohol abuse
- A benign tumor of the middle ear
- Certain medications taken in high doses
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo: With this condition, small stones, or calcified particles, break off within the vestibule and bounce around. The particles trigger nerve impulses that the brain interprets as movement.
- More serious causes of vertigo can mimic labyrinthitis, but these occur rarely.
- Tumors at the base of the brain
- Strokes or insufficient blood supply to the brainstem or the nerves surrounding the labyrinth
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/28/2016
Scott H Plantz, MD, FAAEM
Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD
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