The room didn't stop spinning for three months: Hit by a crippling ear virus, violinist Andre Rieu needed a quick cure


Andrew Rieu has recovered from a viral infection

Andrew Rieu has recovered from a viral infection

Andre Rieu is the eccentric violinist who tours the world’s arenas at the helm of the Johann Strauss Orchestra. It is a frantic pace and his shows are enormous productions. But their success has come at a price.

Rieu, 62, had never taken a day off for illness and even claims to be impervious to jet-lag. But in 2010 he was struck down by a viral infection in his inner ear, which left him unable to stand without feeling overwhelmed by dizziness and nausea.

‘It happened at night. I was in bed and I woke at 3am, opened my eyes and the room was spinning,’ says Dutchman Rieu. ‘It was a terrible feeling and I couldn’t stop it. I didn’t know what was happening. In the morning I felt I was broken.

‘I was on holiday in Belgium and it was the night after we arrived. It was very hot, and the day before I was in the studio rushing to finish a DVD because it had to be shown on television. And then I’d started Spanish lessons. I was told that if I did them ten days in a row, I could learn the language. I had five concerts in Mexico coming up which I wanted to do fully in Spanish.

‘It was quite a stressful time. I think it was everything happening at once. I have two speeds, nothing and full pelt.

‘I believe that music in itself heals and that everything is about the power of the mind. I thought if you are happy, you don’t get ill. Your health is in your head. When you are satisfied with your work, you don’t get ill.

‘But last year for the first time in my life I got ill, I think because I had too much work to do outside music, such as administrative things that I don’t really enjoy,’ says Rieu who lives in a castle in Maastricht, Holland.

‘I saw a doctor and he said I had a vestibular nerve infection, and the cause was overwork. It takes six months to get back to normal.’

The vestibular nerve is inside the inner ear. Any viral infection – even a common cold – can reach this nerve, and if it does it interferes with the messages it sends to the brain about how to balance.

At first, Rieu couldn’t take in the
seriousness of his problem and was determined to carry on. ‘It was very
frightening. Every time I stood up I was sweaty and dizzy,’ he says.

The common symptom of vestibular infection, also knows as vestibular neuritis, is vertigo. It is often accompanied by deafness in one ear and the kind of nausea that normally accompanies motion sickness. Typically it attacks quite suddenly, and although there is anti-sickness medication to prevent vomiting, there is no drug treatment to suppress the effects entirely.

‘I had a concert the next week in Amsterdam before an audience of 60,000,’ says Rieu. ‘I asked the doctor for pills but he said there were no pills for this, just rest. I thought I could rest for a day but then it got worse.’

At first, Rieu couldn’t take in the seriousness of his problem and was determined to carry on. ‘It was very frightening. Every time I stood up I was sweaty and dizzy,’ he says. ‘I had to cancel an Australian tour and then a British one. Who can take six months off I have 120 people on my payroll. They would have no income without me. I need 825,000 each month to pay for everything before I have a profit. That is not a problem and not stressful for me to think about when I’m healthy. But when I’m not .  .  .

‘I went to the hospital and had a brain scan to make sure there was nothing else wrong, such as a brain tumour. Luckily, there was nothing, which was a huge relief.’

Rieu was still determined not to take six months off work. ‘I saw the doctor every day to see how I was and he was always confident it would get better. But I wanted to be better sooner.

Famous Spanish tenor Jose Carreras with Rieu, who before his illness, had never missed a day of work

Famous Spanish tenor Jose Carreras with Rieu, who before his illness, had never missed a day of work

‘Lots of people gave me advice – especially through my social networking sites. They suggested I have a blood transfusion, or cut out sugar.

‘And then a letter arrived from someone in Perth, Australia, who had suffered the same problem. Their doctor gave them some exercises and in two weeks their problem was gone. The exercises involved training how to balance again.’

There are some specialists who recommend vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT), extremely specialised occupational therapy techniques that help a sufferer relearn how to balance.

‘The exercises are eye movements,’ says Rieu, moving his eyes up, down, right, left to demonstrate. ‘And then it was walking in a figure of eight. At first I couldn’t do that at all. I also had to stand on one leg with my eyes closed.

‘Because of these exercises, which I did three times a day for about half an hour a time, I really improved.

‘I had never been ill in my life before. I was ashamed, it was terrible. I was embarrassed for myself. I didn’t have energy to be with my grandchildren, and I felt as if I was having the menopause with all the sweating.

‘But I was very diligent with my eye exercises and within three months I was better and completely healthy again.’

Abby Davies, audiology specialist at Action on Hearing Loss, says: ‘Vestibular neuritis usually clears after a few weeks. If symptoms persist, vestibular rehabilitation may be helpful. This can be carried out by a specialist such as an audiologist or physiotherapist.

‘They use balance tests to find out how well you are using the information from your eyes, ears and joints to keep your balance, and balance retraining exercises may be helpful.’

For Rieu, there is always the threat of a relapse which can happen in five per cent of cases. ‘No one knows if the virus will reoccur, but as they said it was brought on by stress, I have changed my life to make sure I work only on what I love.

‘I wrote lists of everything I did and didn’t like. The short list of what I liked was making music, concerts, CDs and DVDs. The other list was very long. It included meetings, opening businesses and giving talks at universities.

‘I have changed my life so those questions don’t even come to me. And my health now is OK.’

lAndre Rieu’s And The Waltz Goes On is out now on Decca Records. He is touring Britain in December.