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The labyrinth is a part of the inner ear that contains the organs of balance (the semicircular canals and otolithic organs). If it becomes swollen and inflamed you may develop Labyrinthitis ("lab-uh-rin-THYtus"). The inflammation may cause sudden vertigo because nerves from the Labyrinth start to send incorrect signals to the brain that your body is moving, but your other senses (such as vision) don't detect the same movement. The confusion in signals can make you feel that the room is spinning or that you have lost your balance (vertigo). Vertigo is not the same as feeling dizzy. Dizziness means that you feel unsteady or lightheaded. But vertigo makes you feel like you're spinning or whirling. It may make it hard for you to walk. Labyrinthitis may also cause temporary hearing loss or a ringing sound in your ears (tinnitus).
Your doctor may also call this vestibular neuritis. The two problems have the same symptoms and are treated the same way.
These problems are typically thought to be related to a viral infection - although this has not been proven. Some cases of labyrinthitis can be brought on by fluid or infection in the middle ear (behind the eardrum). Your doctor will try to differentiate between the two. Hearing tests and imaging studies such as a CT scan or MRI may be ordered.
In some cases labyrinthitis, is not obvious during an ear exam, so a complete physical exam, including a neurological evaluation, should be performed. Symptoms of labyrinthitis can mimic those of other conditions, so your doctor may order tests to rule them out. Some conditions that mimic labyrinthitis include Meniere's disease (an inner ear disorder) migraine small stroke and brain tumor.
Tests to make an accurate diagnosis may include hearing tests (labyrinthitis is more likely if you have hearing loss) blood tests, a CT or MRI scan of your head and an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a brain wave test. Your doctor will also check your eyes. If they are flickering uncontrollably, it is usually a sign that your vestibular system (the body's balancing system) is not working properly.
In some cases, vestibular neuritis/ labyrinthitis may go away on its own. This can takes several weeks. If the cause is a bacterial infection, your doctor will give you antibiotics, but most cases are caused by viral infections, which can't be cured with antibiotics. Initial treatment often involves steroid medicine and antiviral medication in attempt to shorten the duration and severity of symptoms. Medicines for the symptom of dizziness and nausea can also be used. In some cases where imbalance persists for a long period, a course of vestibular therapy (balance therapy) may help resolve the imbalance more rapidly than otherwise. In rare cases were symptoms persist for 12 months or longer, labyrinthectomy - removal of the inner ear - or vestibular neurectomy - cutting of the balance nerve - could be considered.
In addition to taking medications, there are several techniques you can use to relieve vertigo. Balance exercises such as simple head movements and keeping your balance while standing and sitting may reduce symptoms of vertigo. Vertigo usually gets better as your body adjusts (compensation). Medicines like antihistamines can help your other symptoms, but they may make it take longer for vertigo to go away. If your vertigo continues for a long time, physical and occupational therapists can teach you exercises to help improve balance.
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