THE TV wildlife expert talks about Ménière’s disease, an ear condition causing dramatic vertigo and nausea that has dogged him for more than a decade
The presenter of hit wildlife programmes such as Springwatch, Inside The Animal Mind and The Really Wild Show has suffered for more than a decade with Ménière’s disease, a condition that affects the inner ear and can without warning send the brain’s visual perception of the world into a high-speed spin.
It also damages hearing and causes tinnitus, a constant ringing sound that has been known to drive some people to suicide.
“I’ve not eaten a packet of crisps in years and I have to be very careful with alcohol too because it can leave me dehydrated which is one of my main triggers for attacks,” says Chris, who divides his time between homes in the New Forest and South-west France.
“They can strike out of nowhere. There have been times when I have slumped to the ground without even having time to put my arm out to stop myself.”
Chris is now using his experience to highlight the plight of people with hearing problems in poverty-stricken parts of Africa. He is supporting a campaign by the charity Sound Seekers, backed by Specsavers hearing care, to boost the lives of children with hearing loss in southern Malawi, where infants are twice as likely to be partially deaf than those in the UK.
The Department for International Development has pledged to match donations pound for pound to generate enough cash to pay for hearing tests in the region and to recondition thousands of discarded hearing aids that could transform the lives of deaf youngsters.
The inner ear contains a coiled tube called the cochlea which has two fluid-filled chambers and is responsible for hearing. It also has another complex set of tubes that control balance. If the fluid pressure changes in these tubes it can spark vertigo and tinnitus. In Ménière’s disease this can happen on an extreme scale.
Sudden attacks usually last around two to three hours but it can take a couple of days for the symptoms to disappear completely. Over time these episodes become less frequent and can even stop completely after five to 10 years.
However sufferers can be left with permanent balance problems as well as tinnitus and hearing loss that gets worse over time. There is no cure but drugs are available to treat the symptoms. Patients are often advised to avoid dehydration by limiting alcohol intake and switching to a low-salt diet.
Balance training can also help and as a last resort surgery is also available to try to fix the problem, although it can have mixed results.
I’ve not eaten a packet of crisps in years and I have to be very careful with alcohol too because it can leave me dehydrated which is one of my main triggers for attacks
“It was a slow progression so I wasn’t too concerned. However soon afterwards I was on holiday in Lisbon and stood up after a meal. Suddenly my head was spinning and I felt sick. This lasted until I went to sleep. When I woke, it had gone.”
A few months later, while filming in The Gambia, it happened again. This time it was more severe and Chris had to be helped back to his room to sleep it off. Yet it was the third episode shortly afterwards which really scared him.
“I was in Kenya on a flight from Mombasa to Nairobi and as the plane came in to land, my whole world flipped sideways.
“It was as if my head was tilted to one side. I had extremely violent vertigo going from one side of my head to the other and as soon as I stood up I vomited. I was taken to the airport medical centre and after a couple of hours sleep I was fine.
“The change in air pressure as the aircraft descended had sparked the terrifying attack. I was beginning to think I might have a brain tumour,” says Chris.
When Chris was eventually referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist back in the UK, he was given an instant diagnosis of Ménière’s disease.
“I’d never heard of it but I went online and read up on it and even found a forum where fellow sufferers shared their experiences.”
He was prescribed drugs to stop the vomiting and reduce the vertigo symptoms. However the attacks became more frequent and more severe over the following months. On one occasion he collapsed on the gravel drive outside his house.
After a few years the number of episodes started to decline. These days Chris rarely has a severe bout of vertigo but mild ones still occur every few months.
“I can sense them coming on now because I start to feel a little woozy. These days they are pretty manageable and I have carried on flying and driving. I’m not going to let it stop me.”