Woman holding hand to head and clutching wall

A balance disorder is an ailment that makes you feel dizzy or unsteady, producing the sensation of spinning or floating or moving. And although abbreviated or minor episodes of dizziness are commonplace and no cause for worry, more severe sensations of spinning (vertigo) or prolonged dizzy spells should be evaluated.

In addition to dizziness, you may also encounter other symptoms such as nausea, increased heart rate, anxiety, or panic. Again, if these symptoms are especially intense or extended, it’s wise to seek out professional care.

The types and causes of balance disorders are varied, but before we get to that, let’s quickly review how the body ordinarily preserves its sense of balance.

How the body preserves its balance

We take our body’s capacity to maintain balance for granted because it typically operates effortlessly behind the scenes. But when you give it some thought, maintaining balance is really an incredible feat.

Even in motion, your body is able to perceive its location in space and make corrections to keep your body upright, while calling for little to any conscious control. Even if you close your eyes, and remove all visual cues, you can precisely sense the position of your head as you move it up or down, left or right.

That’s because your vestibular system—the group of organs and structures in your inner ear—can sense any alterations in your head position, transmitting nerve signals to notify your brain of the change.

Structures in the inner ear referred to as semicircular canals have three fluid-filled ducts positioned at approximately right angles to each other. When you move your head, the fluid moves along with it, stimulating the nerve cells that send the information to your brain.

This, together with visual cues and musculoskeletal sensory information, alerts the brain to precise modifications in head and body position.

Common balance disorders and causes

Balance disorders are a consequence of a dysfunction within the vestibular system or with the brain and its ability to examine and use the information.

Balance disorders can therefore be caused by anything that disturbs the inner ear or brain. This list includes, but is not restricted to, medications, benign tumors, ear infections, head injuries, low blood pressure or other heart conditions, and certain neurological conditions.

Common balance disorders include Meniere’s Disease, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), Labyrinthitis, Vestibular Neuronitis, together with many others. Each disorder has its own distinct causes and symptoms and can be diagnosed only by a professional.

Diagnosis and treatment of balance disorders

The diagnosis and treatment of any balance disorder begins by ruling out any medical conditions or medications that might be inducing the symptoms. You might need to change medications or seek out treatment for any underlying heart, neurological, or musculoskeletal condition.

If your balance problem is caused by issues with the inner ear, such as with Meniere’s Disease, treatment may incorporate diet and lifestyle changes, physical manipulations of the head, or medications to relieve the symptoms. Your healthcare provider can supply additional information specific to your condition and symptoms.