Did you know that the ears play a major role in how we maintain balance? The vestibular system is the sensory system for balance. This system includes constantly detecting and communicating information about position, spatial orientation, and movement to the brain. This system is housed in the inner ear and consists of different components that engage in a process that allows us to maintain balance as we move through space. This process can be disrupted causing issues with balance or balance disorders. If you experience any challenges with balance, it is important to be evaluated by a specialist. There are effective ways balance issues are treated, allowing symptoms to be effectively managed.
Understanding the Balance System
The vestibular system involves a complex process of sensory input about position and movement and communicating this information with the brain. This allows us to maintain balance, posture, and stability as we move. The vestibular system consists of the vestibular labyrinth which includes a network of semicircular canals, otolith organs, and the vestibulocochlear nerve. These components all work to receive and share information related to balance. The semicircular canals are comprised of three loops or tubes that each detect a specific motion:
- First canal: up and down motions
- Second canal: side-to-side movements
- Third canal: tilting left and right movements
These canals are filled with fluid known as endolymph and tiny sensory cells. These sensory cells or receptors send information about movement and stability to the brain via the vestibulocochlear nerve. This information comes from different sensory inputs like vision, muscles, and joints which communicate movement and spatial orientation. If any of these components experience damage and/or are prevented from functioning effectively, this can cause issues with balance.
Balance Disorders: Causes & Symptoms
It is estimated that 33 million people, or 15% of adults, experience balance issues or dizziness. According to the National Institute on Deafness & Other Communication Disorders
- 20% of adults ages 65-75 have a balance disorder.
- 25% of adults ages 75 and older have a balance disorder.
Balance disorders involve challenges with maintaining balance and/or experiencing vertigo which is the experience of feeling like the space you are in is spinning. This can produce dizziness, unsteadiness, and contribute to falls. Bouts of dizziness can be short lasting and intermittent or be experienced more chronicall. Balance disorders can be caused by the following:
- Head injuries
- Inner ear disorders including Meniere’s disease, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), vestibular neuronitis, and labyrinthitis
- Hearing loss
- Viral or bacterial infections
- High or low blood pressure
- Medical conditions like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis
These factors can impair signals related to balance reaching the brain and this can affect balance. Common symptoms of balance disorders include: spells of dizziness, vertigo, blurred vision, unsteadiness or feeling like you are going to fall, lightheadedness, feeling faint, headings, nausea, motion sickness, and feeling disoriented. These symptoms, especially when experienced chronically, can affect health and safety in everyday life. If you recognize any of these symptoms, it is important to be evaluated by a specialist.
Treatment for Balance Disorders
If you experience balance issues, you will likely be referred to a healthcare specialist who diagnoses and treats ear-related conditions. An ENT (ear, nose, throat) doctor, also known as otolaryngologists, are able to identify and treat balance disorders. This starts with being comprehensively evaluated. They may use different assessments including hearing tests, imaging tests, and analyzing blood samples. Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your balance issues and can include the following:
- Medications: if underlying causes include a bacterial infection, your healthcare provider may prescribe antibiotics. Other types of medications may also be prescribed to help alleviate common symptoms like dizziness and nausea. These medications may include lorazepam, diazepam, meclizine, and glycopyrrolate.
- Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT): this type of therapy focuses on teaching you how to perform movements without triggering dizziness or vertigo. This includes movements with the head, eyes, standing, sitting etc.
- Canalith repositioning: this treatment is specifically used to treat BPPV (an inner ear disorder). This inner ear disorder is caused when calcium crystals in the otolith organs become dislodged. Canalith repositioning involves performing head exercises to reposition these crystals and alleviate symptoms.
Contact us today to learn more about the balance system and how to approach treating any symptoms you may be experiencing.