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 minor episodes of dizziness are commonplace and no cause for concern, more severe sensations of spinning (vertigo) or protracted dizzy spells should be assessed.
Combined with dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms including nausea, increased heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these symptoms are particularly 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 ordinarily sustains its sense of balance.
How the body maintains its balance
We take our body’s skill to maintain balance for granted because it customarily operates effortlessly behind-the-scenes. But when you give it some thought, maintaining balance is really an impressive feat.
Even in motion, your body is able to sense its location in space and make corrections to keep your body upright, while requiring very little to any mindful control. Even if you close your eyes, and do away with all visual signs, 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 assortment 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 known as semicircular canals consist of three fluid-filled ducts positioned at roughly 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, along with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, signals the brain to exact changes in head and body position.
Common balance disorders and causes
Balance disorders result from a dysfunction within the vestibular system or with the brain and its ability to analyze and act upon 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 certain 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 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 might be causing the symptoms. You might need to change medications or seek out 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 consist of nutritional and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to lessen the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can provide additional information specified to your condition and symptoms.