How your ear health affects your balance

Our ears do more than just hear for us. They help in keeping us upright by communicating with our brain to coordinate how we move. When the inner ear is not working properly this can impact our balance, making us feel unsteady, wobbly or feel like we are constantly moving even whilst still.

Our sense of balance is controlled by the part of our inner ear called the vestibular system. It is used to detect motion and relay the information to our muscles via the brain so that we can position our bodies as we want. When this organ or its nerve supply are impaired we struggle to keep our balance, and we experience dizziness or vertigo.

Unfortunately, our hearing tends to decline as we age and so too can the vestibular function of the inner ear. This explains why as audiologists we see an increased likelihood of vertigo, imbalance, and falls in elderly people. Part of the reason why this happens is that the vestibular system is less stimulated as we become less mobile.

Balance: signs and symptoms

A spinning or rotary sensation lasting for a short amount of time triggered by certain movements (lying down, bending over, quick head turns, rolling over in bed etc.).

This could be Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo or BPPV for short. It happens when natural crystals become lodged in the wrong part of your inner ear, sometimes after a head injury for example. This can be treated quickly and effectively by a trained audiologist with a series of simple manoeuvres to dislodge the crystals.

Severe dizziness accompanied by over sensitivity to light or sound, and often a headache on just one side of the head.

This could be migraine-associated vertigo, which is a surprisingly common issue amongst people who suffer from migraines. This type of vertigo is usually treated by performing a comprehensive assessment of migraine triggers and introducing management techniques to dramatically reduce the likelihood and severity of an episode.

Intense spinning dizziness lasting for hours, often accompanied by vomiting and loss of hearing or tinnitus.

This could be Labyrinthitis. This type of vertigo usually happens after a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, and can most effectively be treated by administering antiviral medications and/or steroids to the affected ear as quickly as possible. Often people are diagnosed late and have longer-lasting effects.  This can be managed with a tailored physical therapy programme.

These key signs are for informational purposes only, and there can be many other causes for dizziness or imbalance. If you experience any of these symptoms it is important that you seek medical attention immediately, to identify what exactly is causing your dizziness and what the best treatment may be. Here at Clifton Audiology, we provide detailed diagnostics of the inner ear using state of the art audiovestibular testing equipment, and we also provide bespoke rehabilitation to help patients deal with the lasting effects of these inner ear problems.

Jonathan Doyle, MSc BSc (Hons) RHAD, is our resident expert in balance and runs the Clifton Audiology balance testing and rehabilitation clinic. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more.