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What is a balance disorder?

A balance disorder is a disturbance in your balance system which can cause you to feel: unsteady, giddy or have a sensation of spinning.

What is the balance system?

Your balance system is made up from what your eyes see, what your joints feel, and what is picked up by the balance part of  your inner ear.

The inner ear is not only part of the hearing system but also sends signals to your brain about the direction and speed your head is moving (through sensors in the semi-circular canals) and detects when you move in a straight line (through the utricle and saccule, also known as the otolithic organs).

Diagram of the earA labelled diagram showing a cutaway of the different parts of the human ear

Diagram of cochlea and semicircular canals (vestibular system)

 

The vestibular system. Inner ear and its relationship to balance and equilibrium. Schematic representation of the membranous labyrinth and cross-section of the cochlea

The inner ear is only one third of the balance system. It also includes inputs from the visual system, for example visual information is sent to the brain about the body’s position in relation to its surroundings. The third input is the musculoskeletal systems which send information from the muscles and joints of the feet and legs to maintain overall balance. The brain receives, interprets, and processes the information from these systems controls your balance.

What are the symptoms of a balance disorder?

When you experience a balance disorder you will often have difficulty maintain your balance and you may experience a sensation which feels as though the room is spinning, you might stagger when you walk, or even be bedbound for a period of time. Some people also experience nausea and vomiting and fear and anxiety. The symptoms may appear and disappear over short periods of time or last for much longer periods depending upon the cause of the balance disorder.

After the initial symptoms if the balance part of your ear does not work correctly, you rely more on the information from your eyes and the joints and muscles in your body and you may feel dizzy. You may also find that certain movements make you feel dizzier, for example, turning your head quickly, bending down, or walking on uneven surfaces. Because of your dizziness, you might have stopped moving in ways that make your dizziness worse. But by stopping some movement your recovery will actually take longer. You might also experience neck stiffness, headaches, muscle stiffness or tiredness because you have stopped moving naturally.

Video – how the inner ear balance system works

Video with Permission by Dr. Christopher Chang

 

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