What is a balance disorder?

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

What is the balance system?

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

  • The inner ear is not only part of the hearing system but it also comprises your balance organ. It sends signals to your brain about the direction and speed your head is moving/turning and detects when you move in a straight line. The inner ear is only one third of the balance system.
  • The balance system 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 system which sends 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 and controls your balance. 

Symptoms of a balance disorder

When you experience a balance disorder you will often have difficulty maintaining your balance and you may experience a sensation which feels as though the room is spinning (vertigo), you might stagger when you walk, or even need to 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 exact cause of the balance disorder. 

After the initial symptoms, if the balance part of your ear does not work correctly, your brain relies more on the information from your eyes and the joints and muscles in your body. You may also find that certain movements make you feel dizzy/unsteady, for example, turning your head quickly, bending down, or walking on uneven surfaces.

Due to this you might have stopped moving in ways that make your dizziness worse. But by stopping some movement your recovery can take longer. You might also experience stiffness in various muscles, headaches and even tiredness because you have stopped moving naturally. 

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Tests for balance problems

There are many and varied tests for balance disorders employed by ENT doctors and specialist audiologists. Which tests are used in an individual case will depend very much upon the history taken and the main symptoms exhibited.

Video – how the inner ear balance system works

Video with permission by Dr. Christopher Chang

Webpage reviewed: February 2024

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