What is a balance disorder?
A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel unsteady or dizzy. If you are standing, sitting, or lying down, you might feel as if you are moving, spinning, or floating. If you are walking, you might suddenly feel as if you are tipping over.
Everyone has a dizzy spell now and then, but the term “dizziness” can mean different things to different people. For one person, dizziness might mean a fleeting feeling of faintness, while for another it could be an intense sensation of spinning (vertigo) that lasts a long time.
About 15 percent of American adults (33 million) had a balance or dizziness problem in 2008. Balance disorders can be caused by certain health conditions, medications, or a problem in the inner ear or the brain. A balance disorder can profoundly affect daily activities and cause psychological and emotional hardship.
What are the symptoms of a balance disorder?
If you have a balance disorder, your symptoms might include:
- Dizziness or vertigo (a spinning sensation).
- Falling or feeling as if you are going to fall.
- Staggering when you try to walk.
- Lightheadedness, faintness, or a floating sensation.
- Blurred vision.
- Confusion or disorientation.
Other symptoms might include nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; changes in heart rate and blood pressure; and fear, anxiety, or panic. Symptoms may come and go over short time periods or last for a long time, and can lead to fatigue and depression.
What causes balance disorders?
Causes of balance problems include medications, ear infection, a head injury, or anything else that affects the inner ear or brain. Low blood pressure can lead to dizziness when you stand up too quickly. Problems that affect the skeletal or visual systems, such as arthritis or eye muscle imbalance, can also cause balance disorders. Your risk of having balance problems increases as you get older.
Unfortunately, many balance disorders start suddenly and with no obvious cause.
How does my body keep its balance?
Your sense of balance relies on a series of signals to your brain from several organs and structures in your body, specifically your eyes, ears, and the muscles and touch sensors in your legs. The part of the ear that assists in balance is known as the vestibular system, or the labyrinth, a maze-like structure in your inner ear made of bone and soft tissue.
Within the labyrinth are structures known as semicircular canals. The semicircular canals contain three fluid-filled ducts, which form loops arranged roughly at right angles to one another. They tell your brain when your head rotates. Inside each canal is a gelatin-like structure called the cupula [KEW-pyew-lah], stretched like a thick sail that blocks off one end of each canal. The cupula sits on a cluster of sensory hair cells. Each hair cell has tiny, thin extensions called stereocilia that protrude into the cupula.
When you turn your head, fluid inside the semicircular canals moves, causing the cupulae to flex or billow like sails in the wind, which in turn bends the stereocilia. This bending creates a nerve signal that is sent to your brain to tell it which way your head has turned.