Your ears don't just help you hear. In fact, they work together with other systems in your body to help you understand your place in space. If you have a steady sense of balance, you might not have a problem understanding where you are, how to stay upright, and how to keep yourself from falling. However, your eyes and brain aren't the only organs involved in this process.
Many of those that have trouble with their balance find that the problem lies in their ears. Ear balance disorders can make you feel unsteady, wobbly, or constantly moving. These sensations of vertigo can seriously impact your ability to walk, stand upright, and even sit up. Before we touch on balance disorders and how they're treated, it's important to understand the ears' role in balance.
How Do We Balance Ourselves?
Our balance system relies on the labyrinth, a maze of bone and tissue located in the inner ear. It holds the semicircular canals, the otolithic organs, and the cochlea. While the cochlea is used for hearing, the canals are used for balance. These look like three circular loops, and each is responsible for sensing a different type of movement. One senses up/down, another senses side-to-side, and the last senses tilt. When the fluid within these tubes move, the hair cells sense the movement and transmit it to our brain. This allows us to understand how we are moving through space. Our balance system is so sensitive that it even tells us when we are moving within a vehicle or elevator.
Problems with the inner ear can lead to balance problems, dizziness, vertigo, and even nausea. We might feel that we are moving when we're not, struggle to stay upright or get motion sickness from standing still. These are all serious issues that can impact our ability to move around and sit up. People with severe vertigo might even feel sick while laying down.
Quite a few things can lead to balance problems, but it's a lesser-known fact that hearing loss can cause balance disorders. Our ears are involved in more than just hearing, and the presence of the semicircular canals in our ears can lead to balance problems in people suffering from hearing loss.
Does Hearing Loss Cause Balance Issues?
Though some of these conditions are tied together, hearing loss and balance problems do not always occur together. Not all people who suffer from balance disorders suffer from hearing loss, and not all people with hearing loss experience a noticeable loss of balance. However, they do occur in tandem from time to time.
Both Labyrinthitis and Meniere's disease can result in hearing loss and balance problems.
Labyrinthitis is an infection of the inner ear. It occurs when the labyrinth, a structure within your inner ear, becomes swollen and inflamed. This can lead to hearing loss, tinnitus, feelings of vertigo, and nausea. This condition is also known as vestibular neuronitis, but the difference is that vestibular neuronitis does not involve hearing loss. Most people do not experience a loss of hearing when suffering from an inner ear infection, but it is possible. That is when the condition becomes Labyrinthitis. Most cases of these conditions can be treated and cured, but severe infections can lead to lasting damage.
Meniere's disease, formerly known as Endolymphatic Hydrops, is a heightened pressure within the labyrinth. This can cause hearing loss, vertigo, and tinnitus. Usually, Meniere's only affects one side, though bilateral cases have been reported. There is no cure for Meniere's disease, though medication can be used to manage it. Those suffering from Meniere's usually feel the pressure building before an episode of the condition. After a few years, the condition can go away naturally.
What Are Balance Disorders?
Balance disorders are any condition that leads to a loss of balance or sense of vertigo/dizziness. These might be caused by simple things such as ear infections or low blood pressure, or a more serious issue like tumors or improper blood circulation. Regardless of what causes a balance disorder, it can lead to serious problems. A person with balance problems might feel like they're tipping over, spinning, or floating, even when they're standing still. Some people with balance disorders report experiencing vertigo when they turn their head, especially when getting out of bed or rolling over. They might stumble from time to time, hold walls to center themselves, or find themselves dragged to the ground. The severity of balance disorders can vary from person to person, and the cause of your balance problems can determine how bad they will be.
Common causes of balance disorders are:
- Positional vertigo, or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). A harmless condition caused by age or a head injury. It causes vertigo when loose otoconia, or bio-crystals, tumble around in your semicircular canals.
- Labyrinthitis. Explained above.
- Vestibular neuronitis. Labyrinthitis without hearing loss.
- Mal de Debarquement syndrome (MdDS). A leftover sensation from prolonged movement. Many people experience this after extended periods in the ocean or on a boat. You might feel like you're still at sea, bobbing and swaying. Some people even experience this after long runs on a treadmill.
- Meniere's disease. Explained above.
- Perilymph fistula. This occurs when fluid from the inner ear leaks into the middle ear. This can occur at birth, after head injuries or surgery, during infections, or after scuba diving.
Balance Disorder Treatment
The treatment of balance disorders largely depends on the cause of your condition. Infections can be treated with antibiotics, while illnesses like Meniere's disease require other medications. Many people with permanent or untreatable balance problems seek out ear balance disorder exercises. These exercises are known as Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy, or VRT.
These exercises help desensitize their balance system to certain movements, making it easier for the person to move around without triggering their vertigo. While it might not completely solve the problem, it can prevent falls and make vertigo easier to live with. Many people who receive VRT have fewer problems bending over, turning their head, and walking over patterned floors.
These exercises must be performed properly to have any positive effect. A VRT specialist can help you learn more and guide you through the exercises. It's important to do these exercises in the presence of a counselor. They will keep you from falling if you become overwhelmed and challenge you when the exercises become too easy.
If this article helped you gain a better understanding of your hearing and sense of balance, you might be interested in learning more about your ears. Signia regularly publishes articles relating to hearing loss, audiology, and how to better care for your ears.