Singer Huey Lewis put Ménière’s disease into the spotlight as it impacts hearing loss when last week he announced the cancellation of his 2018 tour, including a stop at Northern Quest Resort and Casino.
In a Facebook post, the longtime frontman for Huey Lewis and the News mentioned that doctors think he has Ménière’s, and that he’ll focus on improving his health this year.
Ménière’s disease is a disorder of the inner ear that can cause episodes of vertigo, tinnitus, a feeling of pressure in the ear and fluctuating hearing loss. Lewis also described a recent significant impact on his ability to hear music.
“Two and a half months ago, just before a show in Dallas, I lost most of my hearing,” Lewis said. “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.”
That description doesn’t surprise Dr. Jay Rubinstein, a surgeon and University of Washington School of Medicine professor. He’s also director of UW’s hearing research center in Seattle.
The condition is particularly difficult for musicians because “Ménière’s messes with the tuning of your inner ear,” said Rubinstein, an expert in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery.
It’s a disease that also typically affects only one ear, Rubinstein added, although some people do have it in both ears. “But it would be very unusual to suddenly lose hearing in both ears from Ménière’s disease.”
So with Lewis describing the loss of most of his hearing all at once, it might imply that one of his ears already had some hearing loss, Rubinstein said. However, descriptions of pitch distortions also could indicate hearing remains in one ear.
“It’s possible he has good hearing in one ear, and the Ménière’s-affected ear produces such a distorted pitch that he finds it too difficult to sing because he’s getting mixed information,” he added. “One ear is producing an accurate pitch and the other ear is producing an inaccurate pitch.”
Rubinstein added that those intricacies are easier on fans listening to music because typically they can plug a bad ear to hear an accurate pitch in the good ear.
“But if you’re the one who’s singing, plugging your ear doesn’t help, because you hear your voice whether your ears are plugged or not.”
Globally, about 15 people per 100,000 population get Ménière’s disease each year, Rubinstein said. In 1861, the French physician Prosper Ménière first described the condition that now bears his name.
“It’s not profoundly rare,” Rubinstein said. “In my practice, I see a ton of it, but it’s not terribly common either.”
The disorder is caused by endolymphatic hydrops, the medical term for swelling of fluid in a part of the inner ear. Virtually everybody with Ménière’s disease experiences that swelling, but the cause of endolyphatic hydrops isn’t known, Rubinstein said.
With Ménière’s disease, people typically will have episodes of vertigo along with fluctuations of hearing loss, the sound of a low-pitched mechanical noise, and fullness in the ear. Those episodes might occur from once every other day to every couple of years, Rubinstein said.
“Sometimes it will stop happening on its own, and they might not have it again for years,” Rubinstein said. “But usually once you have it, it typically doesn’t go away permanently.”
“The vertigo lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours. After the vertigo stops, the pressure and noise in the ear go away.”
While Lewis said he will focus on getting better in hopes of returning to the stage, people with Ménière’s typically don’t regain their hearing, Rubinstein said. Sometimes, devices like a hearing aide can help, once fluctuations like the pressure and vertigo cease, he said.
“Treatment is extremely effective at stopping the vertigo attacks,” Rubinstein said. “Unfortunately, treatment is not very helpful for affecting the hearing loss.
“Sometimes, the hearing loss repairs itself at least temporarily, but there is nothing you can do to have an impact on the hearing loss. The standard protocol is we let the hearing loss manifest itself, and once it’s stable and stops changing, then we treat the hearing loss for that degree of loss.”
For partial hearing loss, a person might get one hearing aide. But if someone with Ménière’s goes deaf in one ear, there are devices to bring sound over to the other ear, Rubinstein said.
“Most people with Ménière’s disease in one ear have good hearing in the other ear and are not cochlear implant candidates.”
However, Rubinstein added that people have Ménière’s disease variances.
“There are people who get the vertigo without the hearing loss, and without the ear symptoms,” Rubinstein said. “Likewise, there are people who get the hearing loss and ear symptoms who don’t get the vertigo.”
Ménière’s disease isn’t related to aging, the professor added. He’s seen it occur in people as young as 6 up to people in their 90s with the first onset.
“The peak incidence is between ages 30 and 40,” he said. “It’s not typically a genetic disorder.”
He agrees that Lewis taking time off is a good approach, however, because stress is thought to make Ménière’s disease worse.
“So if you’re a touring musician and you stop your tour, you’re going to decrease your stress level, so that’s probably a good thing. Stress doesn’t cause Ménière’s, but it does exacerbate it.”