Huey Lewis, of Huey Lewis & The News fame, has been a musical influence for over forty years. The popular R&B and blues singer recently cancelled all future concert dates when he suffered the first attack of Meniere’s Syndrome.
Mr. Lewis was quoted as saying, “Although I can still hear a little, one on one, and on the phone, I can’t hear music well enough to sing. The lower frequencies distort violently making it impossible to find pitch. I’ve been to the House Ear Institute, the Stanford Ear Institute, and the Mayo Clinic, hoping to find an answer. The doctors believe I have Meniere’s disease and have agreed that I can’t perform until I improve.”
The condition is named after the doctor who first identified the symptoms in 1851. Anyone of any age can get Meniere’s. It commonly attacks 60-year-old men.
The symptoms include irregular, cyclic episodes where Mr. Lewis will experience varying levels of hearing loss of 20% to 80% in the affected ear during each occurrence. It is very rare for victims to experience the problem in both ears.
During the episodes victims of Meiner’s also experience sensitivity to certain sounds, especially metallic sounds. A spoon dropped on the floor sounded like part of a ventilation system crashing down, claimed one sufferer of the syndrome.
Another symptom Huey reported is tinnitus, that is, ringing in the ears. Patients often describe it more like a hissing sound or a compressed air leak. Huey Lewis described it as a loud whooshing sound. Meniere’s sufferers also experience dizziness. During episodes, the room seems to be spinning and the patient has difficulty maintaining their balance. They typically gravitate towards a dark, quiet place to lay down.
Extreme nausea marks the end of the episode.
Afterward, the sufferer goes into a deep sleep for around four hours. The patient then returns to normal until the next episode in a few days, weeks or months. The episodes are totally unpredictable. They often recur randomly for up to two years.
The root problem is diagnosed by an otologist and mitigating solutions are offered. Oto is the Greek word for rocks. You have heard the expression, “You must have rocks in your head.” Otologists are surgeons who work on those rocks. Specifically, the calcium carbonite rocks in the middle ear.
Looking closely to a diagram of the inner you will find the Vestibular nerve connected to the lower portion of Semicircular Canals and the brain. That is the mechanism that controls balance in humans. Microscopic sacs called utricle and saccule contain hair cell filaments embedded in a membrane with calcium carbonate rocks, rather granules, suspended in electrolyte. As your head moves, the rocks move over the hair which send an impulse to the brain through the vestibular nerve. The signal is coordinated with the sense of vision and touch.
Medical researchers believe that pressure caused by a blockage of the electrolyte flow, or an imbalance in the electrolyte, disturbs the motion of the rocks moving over the hairs sending a distorted signal to the brain. The microscopic sacs, the utricle and saccule, can only be observed post mortem so no one can say for certain if that is the problem
Occasionally, Meniere’s goes away by itself. Some patients respond to physical therapy. Others respond to a diet that is low in sodium, alcohol and caffeine. For the majority, the random episodes last a couple of years, after which the patient experiences permanent hearing loss of 50% or more in the affected ear. Dizziness and unbalance continue to plague the victim.
We have other senses to help us keep our balance. After an informal speech recently, a member of the audience questioned why I had kept my hand on a chair while speaking. It was an unconscious act but a reminder that our balance depends on our senses of vision, hearing, and touch.
It may take Lewis a year or two before he can feel comfortable enough with himself to brings his fantastic macho rhythm and blues back to the circuit. If he wants to get back to those fantastic harmonica solos that are his claim to fame I offer one piece of advice which worked for me. That is, keep the sodium intake under two thousand milligrams per day for about six months. I did it. My balance was normal, no dizziness and the hissing sound was minimal. I think my hearing improved greatly. But hey, I like most processed foods, bacon, sausage, pasta, bread and a lot of high sodium foods so right now the hissing and balance problems are back.