A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel dizzy or unsteady, inducing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although abbreviated or trivial episodes of dizziness are normal and no cause for worry, more serious sensations of spinning (vertigo) or sustained dizzy spells should be evaluated.
On top of dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms including nausea, increased heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these episodes are especially severe or extended, it’s best to seek professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are varied, but before we get to that, let’s briefly review how the body normally preserves its sense of balance.
How the body maintains its balance
We take the body’s ability to maintain balance for granted because it customarily operates effortlessly behind the scenes. But when you think about it, maintaining balance is quite a remarkable feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its location in space and make corrections to keep your body upright, while calling for very little to any conscious control. Even if you close your eyes, and take away all visual cues, 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 collection of organs and structures in your inner ear—can sense any alterations in your head position, sending nerve signals to alert your brain of the change.
Structures in the inner ear called semicircular canals include three fluid-filled ducts placed 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, in combination 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 result from a disruption within the vestibular system or with the brain and its ability to analyze and act upon the information.
Balance disorders can for that reason be caused by anything that impacts 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 cardiovascular conditions, and certain 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 unique 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 may be resulting in the symptoms. You may need to switch medications or seek out treatment for any underlying heart, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.
If your balance problem is a consequence of 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 provide additional information specified to your condition and symptoms.