A balance disorder is an ailment that causes you to feel dizzy or unsteady, inducing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although short or trivial episodes of dizziness are common and no cause for worry, more intense sensations of spinning (vertigo) or prolonged dizzy spells should be evaluated.
In addition to dizziness, you may also experience other symptoms such as nausea, a change in heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these symptoms are especially severe or prolonged, it’s best to seek out professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are diverse, but before we get to that, let’s quickly review how the body ordinarily sustains its sense of balance.
How the body preserves its balance
We take the body’s skill to maintain balance for granted because it normally operates effortlessly behind the scenes. But when you give it some thought, maintaining balance is really an impressive feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to sense its position and make corrections to keep your body upright, while requiring very little to any conscious regulation. 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 array of organs and structures in your inner ear—can sense any changes in your head position, transmitting nerve signals to advise your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear known as semicircular canals include three fluid-filled ducts placed at roughly right angles to each other. When you move your head, the fluid moves along with it, stimulating the nerve cells that send the information to your brain.
This, coupled with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, alerts the brain to highly accurate modifications in head and body position.
Common balance disorders and causes
Balance disorders result from a dysfunction within the vestibular system or with the brain and its capability to evaluate and act on the information.
Balance disorders can therefore be caused by anything that impacts 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 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 starts by ruling out any medical conditions or medications that might be creating the symptoms. You might be required to switch medications or seek treatment for any underlying cardiovascular, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is due to problems with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may incorporate dietary 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.