A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel unsteady or dizzy, as if you are moving, spinning, or floating, even though you are standing still or lying down.
Balance disorders can be caused by certain health conditions, medications, or a problem in the inner ear or the brain.
Our sense of balance is primarily controlled by a maze-like structure in our inner ear called the labyrinth, which is made of bone and soft tissue. At one end of the labyrinth is an intricate system of loops and pouches called the semicircular canals and the otolithic organs, which help us maintain our balance.
At the other end is a snail-shaped organ called the cochlea, which enables us to hear. The medical term for all of the parts of the inner ear involved with balance is the vestibular system.
What Are the Types of Balance Problems?
There are different types of balance problems:
- Vertigo causes dizziness when you move your head. The symptoms usually occur when you look behind you or look up to reach for an item positioned above your head.
- Inner ear infection or inflammation can make you feel dizzy and unsteady. The flu or an upper respiratory infection can cause this condition.
- Meniere’s disease changes the volume of fluid in your ear, causing balance problems, hearing loss, and ringing in the ears. Its cause is unknown.
- Head injury, strenuous physical activity, ear infections, and atmospheric pressure changes can cause inner ear fluid may leak into the middle ear and cause balance problems.
- Sea travel can also cause balance problems that may take hours, days, or months to clear up.
- A tumor, such as an acoustic neuroma is possible.
Causes of balance problems include:
- infections of the ear
- inner ear problems
- head injury
- poor blood circulation
- certain medications
- chemical imbalance in the brain
- low blood pressure
- high blood pressure
If your balance is impaired, you may feel as if the room is spinning. You may stagger when you try to walk or teeter or fall when you try to stand up. Some of the symptoms you might experience are:
- Dizziness or vertigo (a spinning sensation)
- Falling or feeling as if you are going to fall
- Lightheadedness, faintness, or a floating sensation
- Blurred vision
- Confusion or disorientation
Other symptoms are nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, and fear, anxiety, or panic. Some people also feel tired, depressed, or unable to concentrate. Symptoms may come and go over short time periods or last for longer periods of time.
Diagnosis of a balance disorder is difficult. There are many potential causes – including medical conditions and medications.
To help evaluate a balance problem, your doctor may suggest you see an otolaryngologist. An otolaryngologist is a physician and surgeon who specializes in the ear, nose, and throat. An otolaryngologist may request tests to assess the cause and extent of the balance problem depending on your symptoms and health status.
The otolaryngologist may request a hearing examination, blood tests, an electronystagmogram (which measures eye movements and the muscles that control them), or imaging studies of your head and brain. Another possible test is called posturography. For this test, you stand on a special movable platform in front of a patterned screen. The doctor measures how your body moves in response to movement of the platform, the patterned screen, or both.
Balance problems are sometimes corrected by addressing an underlying health condition. They may be treated with medication, surgery, dietary changes, physical therapy and/or exercises you can do at home.
- Your doctor will review your medications and might replace them or adjust your dosage.
- If your condition is caused by an ear infection, your doctor might prescribe an antibiotic to cure a bacterial infection.
- Antinausea medications may be prescribed to reduce nausea symptoms.
- Your doctor might inject small doses of corticosteroids behind your eardrum to decrease dizziness.
If you have Meniere’s disease, your doctor may recommend surgery on the vestibular system, which makes up your inner ear and affects your balance.
To relieve vertigo, your doctor may prescribe activities that can be done at home or with the help of a rehabilitation therapist. A common technique that can be performed at home is the Epley maneuver, which involves sitting up and then quickly resting on your back and turning your head to one side. After a couple of minutes, you sit back up. You are typically shown this technique in the doctor’s office and can repeat it at home to reduce or eliminate dizziness.
If the cause of the balance problem is unknown, your doctor might instruct you on various ways to reduce your risk of injury. You may require assistance when using the restroom or climbing stairs. It is generally best to avoid driving if the condition is severe. Using a cane or handrails at home may be necessary.
Your doctor might also make recommendations to address your overall health. These might include exercising, quitting smoking, limiting caffeine and alcohol, reducing your salt intake, and eating well-balanced meals.