Our balance system, otherwise known as the vestibular system, helps us to stand, run, walk, and negotiate our relation to gravity. Like our five main senses, balance is processed through signals to the brain, with information transmitting from our eyes and inner ear, as well as other parts of the body such as our muscles, skin, and joints.
The vestibular system is located in a “labyrinth” in the inner ear. Here, there are three semicircular canals that lie at different angles and contain a fluid called endolymph. As we move, the fluid swishes around and activates sensory hair cells that send a message to our brains (via the acoustic nerve, which also processes sound) of our movements and location in space. When these systems to do not function properly, the result is often dizziness or vertigo, or a spinning or sensation of moving even when you are laying down. This condition is known as a balance disorder.
Researchers estimate that four out of 10 (40%) of Americans, at some point in their lifetime, will experience a degree of dizziness that results in seeking medical attention. Dizziness is experienced differently depending on the person, and as such the symptoms of balance disorders are difficult to categorically define. The main symptoms of balance disorders include dizziness or vertigo, light-headedness, a floating sensation, feeling as though you may fall, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, changes in heart rate, and fatigue.
While there is no single cause for balance disorders, conditions that affect the ear may be the culprit, whether it is from drug-induced ototoxicity, which damages inner ear hair cells and causes sensorineural hearing damage, or ear infections, tumors, or trauma to the head and neck area. Medical professionals say that dizziness or balance issues are generally symptoms of a greater issue, and recommend that people who experience these symptoms seek medical attention to determine underlying causes.
In most cases, your general practitioner will recommend that you see an otolaryngologist (an ear and throat doctor). You may also be recommended to see an audiologist to check the condition of your auditory system, as it is related to your balance. Certain conditions contribute to balance disorder, including Meniere’s disease, which affects the inner ear; labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the inner ear which causes loss of balance and is related to the flu; perilymph fistula, a leakage of inner ear fluid; and Mal de Debarquement syndrome, which is generally attributed to complications caused from the bobbing movements in long periods of travel via water.
Depending on the diagnosis, your doctor will recommend changes to your diet, the use of hearing instruments, or medication to alleviate the dizziness. Balance disorders interfere greatly with a person’s life, impacting almost all areas of daily activities. With balance disorders, descending stairs are just as difficult as taking public transportation or driving to work. Because symptoms also appear when one is standing still, sitting, or lying down, balance disorders complicate everything from working to eating dinner to taking a nap. This causes stress, anxiety, fear, and panic, and in the long term, depression. As physically uncomfortable as it is, balance disorders also impact our emotional well-being. It is important to seek treatment if dizziness has begun to interfere with your life.
Some people with balance disorders find that they’d like to update their home to improve their personal safety. For information on how to do this, please visit this Guide to Home Remodeling for Disability