A balance disorder is a condition that causes you to feel dizzy or unsteady, creating the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And while short or trivial episodes of dizziness are common and no cause for concern, more extreme sensations of spinning (vertigo) or sustained dizzy spells should be evaluated.
In combination with dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms like nausea, increased heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these symptoms are particularly extreme or prolonged, it’s best to seek out professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are varied, but before we get to that, let’s quickly review how the body normally sustains its sense of balance.
How the body keeps its balance
We take our body’s capacity to maintain balance for granted because it customarily works effortlessly behind-the-scenes. But when you think about it, maintaining balance is really an extraordinary feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its position and make corrections to hold your body upright, while requiring very little to any conscious regulation. Even if you close your eyes, and take away 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 collection 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 called semicircular canals possess three fluid-filled ducts placed 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, coupled with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, alerts the brain to highly accurate 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 ascertain and act on the information.
Balance disorders can consequently 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 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 starts by ruling out any medical conditions or medications that may be causing the symptoms. You may need to switch medications or seek treatment for any underlying cardiovascular, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is a consequence of issues with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may include things like diet and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to reduce the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can provide more information specific to your condition and symptoms.