A balance disorder is a condition marked by the symptoms of feeling unsteady or dizzy. Even while standing, lying or sitting still, a person with a balance disorder will feel as if they are moving, spinning or floating. While walking, people may feel as if they are tipping over or falling.
Dizziness is the result of your brain receiving false signals from the balance system (comprised of the inner ear, eyes and sensory nerves).
Patients who experience dizziness/balance problems report a variety of symptoms depending on the exact nature of their disorder. These include:
- Vertigo (the sensation of your surroundings moving when they are not)
- Confusion/ disorientation
- Blurred vision
- Falling or feeling as if you are going to fall
These disorders can be caused by anything that affects the inner ear or the brain such as medications, ear infections, head injuries, and/or aging. Dizziness is one of the leading health complaints in the United States, affecting an estimated nine million people annually. For those over the age of 70 it’s the top reason for a visit to the doctor’s office.
What Are the Most Common Balance Disorders?
- Peripheral vertigo is associated with problems in the inner ear. The vestibular system sends signals to the brain about the position of the head in relation to movement, enabling us to keep our balance and maintain equilibrium. When these signals are disrupted, vertigo results. This is often caused by inflammation related to a viral infection and is commonly associated with two conditions: labyrinthitis (inflammation of the inner ear’s labyrinth and vestibular nerve) and vestibular neuronitis (inflammation of the vestibular nerve).
- Central vertigo occurs when there is a problem in the brain, usually affecting the brainstem or the cerebellum. These parts of the brain are responsible for interactions between the visual and balance systems; any disturbance can lead to vertigo. The most common cause of central vertigo is a migraine headache. Other less common conditions that can trigger central vertigo include stroke, tumors, acoustic neuroma, multiple sclerosis, alcohol and certain drugs.
- Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) involves brief but intense periods of vertigo that are triggered by specific changes in head position. BPPV occurs when tiny particles of calcium (canaliths) detach from the otolithic membrane in the inner ear’s utricle and move into the fluid-filled semicircular canals. When patients’ head movements cause these particles to shift, it results in symptoms like dizziness.
When a balance specialist begins a treatment plan for a patient, repositioning maneuvers are typically the first step in providing relief from vertigo. These medically developed exercises extract the canaliths from the fluid in your semicircular canals and move them back into the utricle, where they re-adhere to the otolithic membrane. Repositioning maneuvers take only five to ten minutes and successfully treat BPPV in 85 percent of patients in just a few treatment sessions.
- Meniere’s disease is a chronic condition that causes vertigo, tinnitus, fullness in the ear and fluctuating hearing loss that may eventually become permanent. Meniere’s is usually confined to one ear and though its cause is unknown it may be the result of abnormal fluid buildup in the inner ear.
How Are Balance Disorders Treated?
In order to determine the appropriate treatment plan for you, your audiologist will need to evaluate and diagnose your symptoms. Once determined, your ENT physician will target the underlying condition to reduce or eliminate the symptoms. Options include medications (antihistamines, sedatives, antibiotics, steroids), physical or occupational therapy, surgery, repositioning exercises, vestibular retraining programs and lifestyle modifications such as dietary changes and elimination of alcohol and nicotine).
Call Great Lakes ENT Specialists at (231) 489-8151 for more information or to schedule an appointment.