A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel dizzy or unsteady, creating the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And while short or minor episodes of dizziness are common and no cause for concern, more extreme sensations of spinning (vertigo) or prolonged dizzy spells should be assessed.
Coupled with dizziness, you may also experience other symptoms like nausea, variations in heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these episodes are especially extreme or extended, it’s a good idea to seek professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are numerous, but before we get to that, let’s quickly review how the body normally preserves its sense of balance.
How the body sustains its balance
We take our body’s facility to maintain balance for granted because it usually operates effortlessly behind-the-scenes. But when you think about it, maintaining balance is quite an impressive feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its location in space and make modifications to hold your body upright, while calling for very little to any mindful 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 detect any changes in your head position, transmitting nerve signals to inform your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear known as 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, combined with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, signals the brain to precise changes in head and body position.
Common balance disorders and causes
Balance disorders are a consequence of a disturbance within the vestibular system or with the brain and its capability to ascertain and use the information.
Balance disorders can consequently be caused by anything that disturbs the inner ear or brain. This list includes, but is not restricted 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 creating the symptoms. You may be required to change medications or seek treatment for any underlying cardiovascular, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is due to issues with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may include nutritional and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to ease the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can provide additional information specific to your condition and symptoms.