Balance disorders and other symptoms of hearing loss
Our sense of balance is directly connected to inner ear health, and disruptions to the vestibular system can lead to dizziness, brain fog, and even vertigo.
The 3 key takeaways
- Balance disorders can be temporary or chronic — Everyone feels lightheaded occasionally, but recurring feelings of unsteadiness and vertigo can point to a more serious problem.
- They are fairly common, especially in older adults — Balance issues tend to set in later in life, often due to disruptions in the inner ear.
- There are many treatment options — Specialists can recommend a tailored treatment plan ranging from surgery to at-home exercise and changes in diet, based on a patient’s symptoms.
Balance disorders can be debilitating. In addition to feelings of lightheadedness, balance disorders can make the room feel as if it’s spinning. Some patients lose their balance to the point of falling and injuring themselves.
People who suffer from balance disorders often struggle with these kinds of experiences, which can disrupt everyday life. Fortunately, there are several treatment options for balance disorders.
A balance disorder, explained
Losing your sense of balance is unnerving and scary. Balance disorders cause people to feel dizzy, lightheaded, and unsteady on their feet. Some people describe the room spinning around them while they remain perfectly still or the floor coming up at them, an experience otherwise known as vertigo.
Balance disorders can also impact your cognitive abilities, causing confusion or brain fog. Additionally, you may experience blurred and impaired vision.
All of these effects can last for a few brief moments or for extended periods of time. Losing our body’s critical sense of balance and stability can also lead to fatigue, depression, and anxiety.
Your sense of balance
Humans owe our sense of balance to the vestibular system located in the inner ear. This sensory system not only helps us maintain our balance and spatial awareness, but it’s also connected to our eye movements. Also called the labyrinth, this small, maze-like structure contains fluid that shifts as we move our heads.
The vestibular system sends signals to our brains and other receptors that tell us our head’s location in relation to gravity, giving us a sense of stability.
What does it mean to have a balance disorder?
Anything that negatively impacts our vestibular system will have adverse effects on our sense of balance. Balance disorders that cause dizziness and unsteadiness are quite common, affecting up to 40% of American adults according to the National Institute of Health.
Balance disorders pose a greater risk to older adults, as problems with balance and unsteadiness often increase with age.
Something as simple as an ear infection or viral illness can throw off our sense of balance. Feelings of lightheadedness and dizziness while suffering an infection is quite common and shouldn’t be overblown.
However, if feelings of unsteadiness crop up regularly or you find yourself stumbling to maintain your balance, it could be time to visit your doctor. People that find it hard to maintain balance through everyday movements or functions, such as standing for more than a few minutes, may be experiencing a balance disorder.
What are the symptoms of a balance disorder?
When it comes to balance disorders, the symptoms are the illness. These are just a few of the ways people experiencing a balance disorder describe the sensations they experience.
- Dizziness. While feeling dizzy will look different for each patient, it often involves feeling lightheaded when standing up too quickly. In more extreme cases, patients describe feelings of spinning or motion sickness while they are sitting or laying still. This extreme dizziness or the feeling of falling is associated with vertigo.
- Brain fog. A balance disorder can throw off your mental sense of orientation. This sense of confusion can also cause fatigue and headaches.
- Vision impairment. Our vestibular system is connected with eye movements, so a disruption in the system can lead to blurred or foggy vision. These visual disturbances are debilitating, as patients can overcompensate by squinting and straining, adding further strain on their eyesight.
What causes a balance disorder?
A wide variety of issues can lead to someone experiencing a balance disorder. Something as minor as a short-lived viral illness can affect the vestibular system, leading to bouts of dizziness. However, there are more serious illnesses associated with balance disorders.
Temporary causes of balance disorders
- Ear infection. Because our vestibular system is responsible for our sense of balance, an ear infection can disrupt this system, causing a short-term balance disorder.
- Mild concussion. A head injury will often result in feelings of dizziness, imbalance, and nausea. In most cases, these sensations go away on their own a few days after the incident.
- Medication. Certain medications can cause feelings of unsteadiness or lightheadedness. Always talk with your doctor about the side effects of a new medication, and if you begin experiencing these sensations, ask about possible alternatives.
The good news is temporary balance disorders are just that: temporary. Antibiotics can help you recover from a viral or bacterial infection, thereby resolving the associated symptoms of dizziness or unsteadiness.
Chronic causes of balance disorders
Some balance disorders develop later in life, while others are present at birth. Getting a proper diagnosis of what kind of disorder you are experiencing is key to finding the proper doctors and treatment necessary to help.
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). Perhaps the most well-known of chronic balance disorders, positional vertigo causes the patient to experience a feeling of spinning, which is often triggered by head movement. Simply stated, this occurs due to displaced otoconia or crystals in the vestibular organ. BPPV can develop as we age or as the result of a head injury. A vitamin D deficiency and increased stress can also cause vertigo.
- Ménière’s disease. A disease of the inner ear where fluid fills the labyrinth, Ménière’s disease usually affects one ear. A patient with this illness may experience not only intermittent bouts of dizziness but also hearing loss and ringing of the ears, or tinnitus. There is no obvious reason people contract this disease. However, some doctors believe there is a genetic element since it seems to run in families.
- Perilymph fistula. This occurs when, due to a tear, fluid leaks from the inner to the middle ear, causing the patient to feel dizzy and nauseous. This condition is often the result of a head injury, chronic ear infections, or ear surgery.
Treating chronic balance disorders
After you talk to your doctor about your specific symptoms, they may refer you to an otolaryngologist, more commonly called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an audiologist who specializes in the vestibular system. Both of these specialists can diagnose balance disorders and recommend effective treatment options.
Treatment for each type of balance disorder looks different. Some patients have great results through physical therapy techniques or head movements that rebalance the otoconia in the ear.
The Epley Maneuver is one example of a simple yet effective technique patients can do at home to treat BPPV.
For more serious cases, doctors may prescribe anti-vertigo or anti-nausea medications. They may also suggest changes to your diet or daily habits, such as quitting smoking. In the most serious of cases, your doctor may encourage surgery on the vestibular system.
Learn more about hearing and balance disorders.
So, should I see a doctor?
Sometimes it’s hard to know if your symptoms are pointing to a bigger problem. The National Institute of Health recommends talking to your doctor about a possible balance disorder if you answer ‘yes’ to any of the following questions:
- Am I unsteady on my feet?
- Does it feel like the room is spinning?
- Have I ever felt as if I was moving when sitting still?
- Do I have trouble maintaining my balance?
- Do I experience the sensation of falling?
- Do I ever feel lightheaded or faint?
- Is my vision blurry or foggy?
- Do I ever feel confused about my sense of location?
Only a medical professional can accurately diagnose and treat a balance disorder.