A balance disorder is a condition that causes you to feel dizzy or unsteady, inducing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although brief or minor episodes of dizziness are normal and no cause for concern, more severe sensations of spinning (vertigo) or protracted dizzy spells should be examined.
Along with dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms including nausea, a change in heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these symptoms are especially severe or prolonged, it’s a good idea to seek out professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are varied, but before we get to that, let’s briefly review how the body ordinarily maintains its sense of balance.
How the body sustains its balance
We take the body’s facility to maintain balance for granted because it typically operates effortlessly behind-the-scenes. But when you think about it, maintaining balance is really a remarkable feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its position and make modifications to hold your body upright, while requiring little to any conscious control. Even if 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 group of organs and structures in your inner ear—can detect any modifications to your head position, sending nerve signals to alert your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear called semicircular canals possess three fluid-filled ducts positioned at roughly 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, along with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, alerts the brain to exact changes in head and body position.
Common balance disorders and causes
Balance disorders are a consequence of a dysfunction within the vestibular system or with the brain and its ability to assess and act on 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 heart conditions, and some neurological conditions.
Common balance disorders include Meniere’s Disease, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Labyrinthitis, Vestibular Neuronitis, along with many others. Each disorder has its own distinct 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 producing the symptoms. You may be required to switch medications or seek out treatment for any underlying cardiovascular, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is caused by 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 alleviate the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can supply additional information specified to your condition and symptoms.