A balance disorder is an ailment that makes you feel dizzy or unsteady, inducing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although brief or minor episodes of dizziness are common and no cause for concern, more severe sensations of spinning (vertigo) or chronic dizzy spells should be examined.
Combined with dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms including nausea, increased heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these symptoms are especially intense or extended, it’s wise to seek professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are diverse, but before we get to that, let’s briefly review how the body ordinarily maintains its sense of balance.
How the body keeps its balance
We take our body’s skill to maintain balance for granted because it usually works effortlessly behind the scenes. But when you give it some thought, maintaining balance is quite a remarkable feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its position and make modifications to keep your body upright, while calling for very little to any conscious control. Even if you close your eyes, and do away with all visual signs, you can accurately sense the position of your head as you shift it up or down, left or right.
That’s because your vestibular system—the group of organs and structures in your inner ear—can sense any modifications to your head position, transmitting nerve signals to notify your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear known as semicircular canals include 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 conjunction with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, alerts the brain to exact modifications in head and body position.
Common balance disorders and causes
Balance disorders are the result of a dysfunction within the vestibular system or with the brain and its capability to evaluate and use the information.
Balance disorders can therefore be caused by anything that has an effect on 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 certain neurological conditions.
Common balance disorders include Meniere’s Disease, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Labyrinthitis, Vestibular Neuronitis, together with several others. Each disorder has its own unique 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 may be causing the symptoms. You may need to change medications or seek treatment for any underlying heart, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is caused by issues with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may incorporate nutritional and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to minimize the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can provide more information specific to your condition and symptoms.