One of the most fascinating functions of the ear is the role it plays in maintaining balance. The intricate workings of the inner ear signal to the brain where our bodies are in space. Are we sitting, standing or lying down? Is our body moving? It’s the inner ear that knows.
Unfortunately, this intriguing system of the inner ear, known as the vestibular system, can sometimes break down, leaving us feeling dizzy and off-balance. In fact, it’s believed that over 40% of Americans will see a doctor during their lifetime because of dizziness. Whether it’s a temporary short circuit in the system or a longer-term condition, it’s important to work with your physician and hearing health care provider to get a quick diagnosis and treatment or management plan.
While there are many reasons you may be feeling dizzy, from skipping lunch to a common cold virus to more serious conditions, there are several common balance disorders involving the vestibular system that may be the cause. These disorders, like tinnitus, can impact daily life in more ways than one, especially when left untreated.
Here’s what you need to know about the most common balance disorders:
- Labyrinthitis and Vestibular Neuritis: This infection or inflammation of the inner ear, the result of common viruses or a bacterial infection, results in dizziness, loss of balance and vertigo (a spinning sensation). While these balance conditions affect the same area of the vestibular system, are short term and rarely recur, labyrinthitis may also affect hearing during its course. Treatment is often to manage symptoms such as vertigo and, in cases of a bacterial infection, antibiotics until the inflammation subsides.
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) or positional vertigo: This regularly occurring dizziness or vertigo is often age-related and is more likely to affect women than men. It can be a short- or long-term condition. BPPV is caused when crystals in the fluid-filled structures of the inner ear become dislodged. These gravity-sensing crystals then send incorrect information about movement and position of the head, causing dizziness and vertigo. In many cases, the crystals can be repositioned through a treatment called canalith repositioning, a series of head movements performed with a physician’s guidance. On rare occasions, surgery is recommended.
- Ménière’s disease: Despite many theories, little is known about what causes Ménière’s disease. This condition can result in a range of symptoms, usually starting in one ear, including vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus and a feeling of fullness in the ear. The good news is that Ménière’s disease is rare. Experts believe just 0.2% of the population is affected. The majority of those diagnosed are over 40 years old. While research into a cure is ongoing, there are several treatments that may be recommended to manage Ménière’s disease. These include medications to help with dizziness, dietary recommendations to reduce symptoms and, occasionally, surgery to help relieve extreme dizziness.
Chances are you or someone you know will be affected by a balance disorder of the ear at some point in your life. If you’re experiencing dizziness, vertigo or problems with balance, don’t wait. See your doctor or hearing health care provider for a diagnosis and treatment.