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 normal and no cause for concern, more serious sensations of spinning (vertigo) or chronic dizzy spells should be assessed.
Together with dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms like nausea, changes in heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these episodes are particularly extreme or extended, it’s wise to seek out professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are numerous, 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 our body’s ability to maintain balance for granted because it normally works effortlessly behind-the-scenes. But when you give it some thought, maintaining balance is quite an incredible feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to sense its position and make modifications to hold your body upright, while calling for little to any mindful regulation. Even when you close your eyes, and take away all visual cues, you can precisely 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 modifications to your head position, sending nerve signals to inform your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear called semicircular canals consist of three fluid-filled ducts positioned at approximately 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, together with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, alerts the brain to precise 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 ability to analyze and use 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 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 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 generating the symptoms. You might be required to switch medications or seek treatment for any underlying heart, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is due to problems with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may consist of dietary and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to reduce the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can supply more information specific to your condition and symptoms.