Have you ever thought about how we maintain our balance? Being able to stand and walk with ease is made possible by complex systems that the body manages. These systems, housed in the inner ear, can be impacted which causes balance disorders. Balance disorders produce symptoms that disrupt balance and movement. Luckily, this can be treated and managed effectively, supporting the body’s equilibrium.  

 

Understanding the Balance System

The vestibular system, located in the inner ear, is the sensory system that is responsible for maintaining balance. Unlike other senses, this sensory system relies on several different inputs. This includes spatial orientation which comes from visual inputs (the eyes) as well as inputs from the skin, muscles, and joints which help the brain with a sense of balance. The vestibular system, structures in the inner ear, consist of three loops: 

  • First canal: senses up and down motions
  • Second canal: senses side to side movements
  • Third canal: senses tilting movement 

These semicircular canals have hair cells and fluid that send messages to the brain about movement and balance (messages get carried to the brain by the acoustic nerve). This includes information about how your head and body are moving (are you standing upright, are you moving your head, etc.). Combined with what you see, hear, and sense; this information helps the body keep your balance and sense of steadiness. An issue in the inner ear is among the most common causes that lead to balance disorders. 

 

Balance Disorders: Causes & Symptoms 

A balance disorder is a condition that is characterized by a loss of balance and/or vertigo (dizziness). Several factors can cause balance issues. Underlying medical conditions that can lead to balance disorders include: 

  • Inner ear disorders like Meniere’s disease, labyrinthitis, vestibular neuronitis, perilymph fistula 
  • Head injuries 
  • Sudden hearing loss 
  • Viral or bacterial infections 
  • Neurological disorders 

 

Balance disorders produce symptoms that people can experience differently. Common symptoms include: 

  • Dizziness, vertigo
  • Feeling faint, lightheaded
  • Headaches
  • Falling
  • Motion sickness
  • Nausea
  • Blurry vision 

 

Symptoms can come and go and last for a short period or be more chronic, disrupting daily life. 

Hearing Loss & Balance Disorders

Hearing loss and balance issues can be experienced simultaneously as both functions occur in the ear. But one can also be experienced without the presence of the other. Hearing loss and balance disorders can share the same underlying condition. This includes Meniere’s disease and labyrinthitis. Labyrinthitis is an inner ear infection that produces inflammation. Also known as vestibular neuronitis, the swelling and inflammation can cause hearing loss and balance disorders. Meniere’s disease is another inner ear condition that is caused by an accumulation of fluid. This creates pressure, tinnitus, and discomfort as well as can cause both hearing loss and balance issues. 

Diagnosing & Treating Balance Issues 

Diagnosing balance issues involves identifying the underlying cause that is impacting the vestibular system. Your healthcare provider may refer you to an otolaryngologist, also known as an ENT doctor. ENT doctors specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions related to the ear, neck, and throat. You may also be referred to an audiologist who specializes in ear-related conditions. 

 

Several types of diagnostics could be conducted to help identify the cause of balance disorders. This includes a hearing test, blood tests, imaging of the head and brain, or a posturography. Posturography involves standing on a platform to see how well you can maintain balance while the platform changes. Treatment for balance issues depends on the underlying medical condition causing it. Treatment options could include: 

  • Medications: antibiotics can be recommended to treat bacterial infections, there are also specific medications that address Meniere’s disease. 
  • Vestibular rehabilitation: Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT) involves exercises that work on performing movements (with the eyes, head, body) without triggering vertigo. 
  • Canalith repositioning: this treatment is used to address BPPV – benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. This is a specific type of vertigo caused by dislodged crystals in the otolith organs in the inner ear which monitor the head’s movements. This treatment consists of slow head movements that move the particles back in place. 

 

If you have experienced any symptoms related to balance, it is important to seek medical help. Contact us to learn more

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