Feeling Off Balance? How Your Inner Ear Can Cause Vertigo

Have you ever felt dizzy, weak and woozy? Or experienced vertigo, that troubling sensation that the room is spinning while you're standing perfectly still? If these occur regularly—or intensely—you may be coping with a vestibular disorder.

Vertigo and dizziness

A young woman experiences a bout of vertigo

Such experiences may indicate a problem with parts of the inner ear and brain processing the sensory information involved with balance. And you're hardly alone: Vertigo and dizziness are experienced by nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults at some point in their lifetime, making them one of the most common reasons for visiting a doctor. For the population age 65-plus, a whopping 80 percent of people have experienced dizziness.

Children also have this issue, and it is often connected to hearing impairment; research reveals that 20 to 70 percent of children with sensorineural hearing loss also have balance issues.

How does your body's balance system work?

There are three components of balance: the visual system, the proprioceptive system (your overall sensing of movement), and the delicate and complex vestibular system in your inner ear. The brain integrates and processes all the information from these three systems and sends it throughout our bodies, helping us maintain our balance or sense of equilibrium.

A closer look at vestibular disorders

When the balance system is disrupted by a problem in the brain or damage to any of the three senses involved in balance—say, due to injury, disease, or the aging process—vestibular disorders can result.

The Vestibular Disorders Association (VeDA) explains that those affected by vestibular disorders "may experience impaired balance accompanied by other symptoms such as dizziness, vertigo, vision problems, nausea, fatigue, and concentration difficulties." Further symptoms may include hearing losstinnitus, fullness, headaches, sensitivity to noise, short-term memory problems, and trouble comprehending instructions.

Some common vestibular disorders include:

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): In this condition, dizziness is triggered by changes in your head's position —say, if you tilt your head up or sit up in bed in the morning. BPPV is the most common vestibular disorder and is the cause of approximately half of the dizziness cases among seniors. BPPV tends not to be serious, but it does raise the risk of falls.

Vestibular neuritis , or vestibular-nerve inflammation, and labyrinthitis—inflammation of both the vestibular and cochlear nerve—both cause vertigo. Labyrinthitis also leads to hearing issues and tinnitus. Antibiotics or antiviral medications may be needed to clear up these problems.

Ménière's disease , which typically effects only one ear, is a disorder of the inner ear. It can involve vertigo and hearing loss, which may be permanent.

Mal de Débarquement Syndrome (MdDS) is a neurological disorder that leaves patients feeling as if they are rocking and swaying at all times. It usually begins after some form of travel—say, on a plane or boat.

Vestibular migraine is a neurological problem that causes repeated dizziness in those with a history of migraine symptoms. Unlike traditional migraines, you may not always have a headache when this issue occurs.

How to manage a vestibular disorder

Living with a vestibular disorder—and experiencing frequent dizziness or vertigo—can have a serious impact on quality of life. It can lead to falls or just limit daily limit due to the discomfort involved. Once your doctor has ruled out issues like a stroke, you can collaborate on a treatment plan, or you may be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Although some vestibular disorders may go away on their own or respond well to medication, others require rehabilitation therapy and occasionally surgery.

Lifestyle factors can also play an important role in getting a person back in balance. Hearing Tracker spoke to Natasha Harrington-Benton, Director at the Ménière's Society, and Cynthia Ryan, Executive Director at VeDA, and asked them for some tips for managing a vestibular disorder.

  • Work on your wellness. Ryan told Hearing Tracker, "Physical, mental and emotional balance all contribute to your overall wellness and recovery from a vestibular disorder. Minimizing stressgetting enough sleepeating well, and exercising as appropriate will reduce possible triggers that could cause equilibrium issues."
  • Drill down on your diet."Many people with vertigo find changes in their diet, such as reducing salt, caffeine and/or alcohol, can help with their symptoms. While these won't prevent the symptoms from occurring, they may help to reduce their severity," said Harrington-Benton.
  • Seek emotional support. Having a good support system is very helpful. "In addition to educating your friends and family about your condition," said Ryan, "you can join an online support group to find a community of people who understand what you're going through." Being able to talk about the challenges of a vestibular disorder can provide reassurance.
  • Get enough rest. If you have problems with balance, your brain has to work harder to manage this issue. "Getting a good night's sleep is important for people with a vestibular condition to help cope with this," said Harrington-Benton.

By collaborating with your healthcare practitioners, you can take control of a vestibular disorder and feel on more solid ground. For further information, visit the Vestibular Disorders Association (VeDA) and the Ménière's Society.