Upstate ear specialist helps middle school teacher with hearing, balance problems

They weren’t life-threatening, but the symptoms that plagued Jolie Bower were so debilitating she had to stop working.

She had a spinning sensation of vertigo and nausea that would come on without warning. Her head would become a bowling ball and her neck a toothpick. She was laid out on the floor for hours at a time.

Today the Onondaga Hill Middle School health teacher is back to a job she loves–and she credits Upstate otolaryngologist Charles Woods, MD.

“I’m so fortunate that we have him here in Syracuse,” she said. “What he did for me was huge.”

Bower, of Liverpool, developed vertigo in 2006. Her primary care doctor sent her to an ear, nose and throat doctor who diagnosed Meniere’s disease and prescribed motion sickness medicine, a low-salt diet and a medicine to help reduce the fluid from her inner ear.

Those measures over the years did not relieve her symptoms. Eventually Bower took medical leave from her job and she got an appointment with Woods, an Upstate otologist, an ear, nose and throat doctor who subspecializes in disorders of the ear. He is an assistant professor of otolaryngology and communication sciences at Upstate.

He explains that Meniere’s can affect hearing and balance, both of which are controlled in the inner ear.

“I always tell patients I don’t like the name ‘disease’ because it’s an inner ear that’s not functioning correctly,” said Woods. “The inner ear is made up of both the hearing side of things and the balance side of things.”

Patients can experience progressive hearing loss as the hair cells in the cochlea are damaged, and they may report a feeling of fullness in the ear. Woods says that sensation comes from increased pressure within the fluid spaces of the inner ear.

No one knows what causes the increased pressure, but he says it’s similar to the eye disease, glaucoma. Increased fluid pressure inside the eye can lead to retinal damage, while increased fluid pressure in the inner ear can cause progressive neural damage.

Tinnitus is also a common symptom, with sounds ranging from high pitched hisses to the sound of a seashell cupping the ear.

The most debilitating symptom is vertigo, a sense that the world is spinning.

“If we can at least alleviate that symptom for people, the disordered ear is much more bearable,” Woods said.

In Bower’s case, Woods initially operated to install a shunt in her right ear, which spared her hearing. For two years Bower said she felt better. “Then it came back with a vengeance,” and her hearing in that ear was distorted.

Woods describes a variety of treatment options ranging from steroid and antibiotic injections, to the severing of the balance nerve in the inner ear.

Bower opted for another surgery called a labyrinthectomy, in which her inner ear was removed. This meant she would lose her hearing in that ear, and physical therapy would be part of her recovery as she worked to retrain her brain and regain balance, and recalibrate her vision.

“The brain is pretty amazing what it’s able to do,” she said. “My good side took over for my bad side.” Bower felt like she was back to normal about three months after the surgery.

She is deaf in her right ear, but Bower hopes to get a bone-anchored hearing aide that will send sound through bone to her good ear.

Woods said more than three-quarters of people with Meniere’s disease control their symptoms with a low-salt diet and diuretic medication.

“Because the disease is intermittent, we’re not sure exactly how long and what period of time we need to treat people,” he says. “Oftentimes, it’s at least intermittent treatment, life long, because the disease is not going to go away. It’s going to plague the patient, intermittently, through their life.”

Patients are likely to have quiet periods of several years where they don’t need treatment. When symptoms become debilitating, Woods says it’s time to consider other treatment options.

Diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, Jolie Bower, a teacher at Onondaga Hill Middle School, found relief in surgery.

—This article appears in the current issue of Upstate Health.

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