A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel unsteady or dizzy. If you are standing, sitting, or lying down, you might feel as if you are moving, spinning, or floating. If you are walking, you might suddenly feel as if you are tipping over.
Everyone has a dizzy spell now and then, but the term “dizziness” can mean different things to different people. For one person, dizziness might mean a fleeting feeling of faintness, while for another it could be an intense sensation of spinning (vertigo) that lasts a long time.
About 15 percent of American adults (33 million) had a balance or dizziness problem in 2008. Balance disorders can be caused by certain health conditions, medications, or a problem in the inner ear or the brain. A balance disorder can profoundly affect daily activities and cause psychological and emotional hardship.
Your sense of balance is controlled by signals to the brain about body movement and your position in relation to the environment. The brain integrates this information and sends signals back to the muscles on how to maintain balance.
Three sensory systems manage balance:
Good balance needs at least 2 of these 3 sensory systems working well. If one system is not working, the other 2 systems help keep you balanced. If the brain can’t process signals from all of these systems, or if the messages are not functioning properly, you may experience a loss of balance.
There are more than a dozen different balance disorders. Some of the most common are:
If you have a balance disorder, your symptoms might include:
Other symptoms might include nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; changes in heart rate and blood pressure; and fear, anxiety, or panic. Symptoms may come and go over short time periods or last for a long time, and can lead to fatigue and depression.
Diagnosis of a balance disorder is difficult. To find out if you have a balance problem, your primary doctor may suggest that you see an otolaryngologist and an audiologist. An otolaryngologist is a physician and surgeon who specializes in diseases and disorders of the ear, nose, neck, and throat. An audiologist is a clinician who specializes in the function of the hearing and vestibular systems.
You may be asked to participate in a hearing examination, blood tests, a video nystagmogram (a test that measures eye movements and the muscles that control them), or imaging studies of your head and brain. Another possible test is called posturography. For this test, you stand on a special movable platform in front of a patterned screen.
Posturography measures how well you can maintain steady balance during different platform conditions, such as standing on an unfixed, movable surface. Other tests, such as rotational chair testing, brisk head-shaking testing, or even tests that measure eye or neck muscle responses to brief clicks of sound, may also be performed. The vestibular system is complex, so multiple tests may be needed to best evaluate the cause of your balance problem.