A balance disorder is a condition that causes you to feel dizzy or unsteady, producing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although short or trivial episodes of dizziness are common and no cause for worry, more severe sensations of spinning (vertigo) or lengthy dizzy spells should be evaluated.
On top of dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms such as nausea, changes in heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these episodes are particularly severe or extended, it’s a good idea to seek out professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are numerous, but before we get to that, let’s briefly review how the body ordinarily sustains its sense of balance.
How the body sustains its balance
We take our body’s skill to maintain balance for granted because it normally works effortlessly behind the scenes. But when you think about it, maintaining balance is quite an incredible feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to sense its position and make modifications to keep your body upright, while requiring little to any conscious regulation. Even when you close your eyes, and eliminate all visual cues, you can precisely sense the position of your head as you move it up or down, left or right.
That’s because your vestibular system—the array of organs and structures in your inner ear—can detect any alterations in your head position, sending nerve signals to advise your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear called semicircular canals possess three fluid-filled ducts placed at approximately right angles to each other. When you move your head, the fluid moves together with it, stimulating the nerve cells that send the information to your brain.
This, in combination with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, signals the brain to exact changes in head and body position.
Common balance disorders and causes
Balance disorders result from a disturbance within the vestibular system or with the brain and its ability to analyze and use the information.
Balance disorders can for that reason be caused by anything that affects the inner ear or brain. This list includes, but is not limited to, medications, benign tumors, ear infections, head injuries, low blood pressure or other cardiovascular conditions, and some neurological conditions.
Common balance disorders include Meniere’s Disease, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Labyrinthitis, Vestibular Neuronitis, together with many others. Each disorder has its own specific causes and symptoms and can be diagnosed only by a professional.
Diagnosis and treatment of balance disorders
The diagnosis and treatment of any balance disorder begins by ruling out any medical conditions or medications that might be inducing the symptoms. You may need to change medications or seek out treatment for any underlying heart, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is due to issues with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may consist of nutritional and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to reduce the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can offer more information specific to your condition and symptoms.