A balance disorder is an ailment that makes you feel dizzy or unsteady, inducing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although short or trivial episodes of dizziness are common and no cause for concern, more extreme sensations of spinning (vertigo) or protracted dizzy spells should be assessed.
In combination with dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms such as nausea, a change in heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these episodes are especially severe or prolonged, it’s a good idea to seek out professional care.
The types and causes of balance disorders are diverse, but before we get to that, let’s briefly review how the body ordinarily maintains its sense of balance.
How the body preserves its balance
We take the body’s skill to maintain balance for granted because it usually operates effortlessly behind-the-scenes. But when you give it some thought, maintaining balance is really an extraordinary feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its position and make corrections to keep your body upright, while requiring very little to any mindful regulation. Even if you close your eyes, and do away with 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 group of organs and structures in your inner ear—can detect any changes in 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 about 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 highly accurate 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 ability to analyze and act on the information.
Balance disorders can therefore 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 heart conditions, and some neurological conditions.
Common balance disorders include Meniere’s Disease, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Labyrinthitis, Vestibular Neuronitis, along with several 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 inducing the symptoms. You might need to switch medications or seek treatment for any underlying heart, 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 dietary and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to reduce the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can offer additional information specified to your condition and symptoms.