Most people will experience dizziness and a sudden loss of balance at some point in their lifetime. In fact, millions of people have some sort of balance disorder. A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel unsteady or dizzy as if you are moving or spinning. This condition is often called vertigo.
One of the most common causes of balance problems may be a problem with your inner ear. While your ears are responsible for hearing sounds and noises, your inner ear plays a critical role in balance. Your sense of balance is controlled by a structure in the inner ear called the labyrinth. The labyrinth is made of bone, canals, tissue, and tiny organs. Together, these structures help maintain balance.
The most common problem in the inner ear is called benign paroxysmal [PAR-uhk-siz-muhl] positional vertigo (BPPV). This condition is caused by changes in the inner ear. The dizziness that comes with BPPV happens when small crystals move from their normal position inside a small space in your inner ear. When the crystals come loose, they float or get stuck on sensors in one of the nearby semi-circular canals. When they move inside the canals, your brain will get false messages. Those false messages are what can cause dizziness or vertigo.
Another common cause of balance problems is inner ear infections. These infections are usually the result of a virus from a cold or other upper respiratory infection.
Common symptoms of a loss of balance may include:
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Falling or feeling as if you are going to fall
- Blurred vision
- Faintness or a feeling as if you are floating
See your doctor if you experience a sudden loss of balance. Feeling dizzy or lightheaded could be a sign of a more serious medical condition or problem. It’s important to see your physician to rule out causes of balance problems.
If your balance problems are caused by problems with your inner ears, your doctor may suggest you see an otolaryngologist [oh-toh-lar-ing-GOL-uh-jist]. An otolaryngologist is a doctor that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of ear, nose and throat problems.
Common causes of balance problems may include:
- Inner ear infection
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
- Ménière’s [men-ee-AIRS] disease, a disorder of the inner ear
- Head injury
- Changes in atmospheric pressure (such as when scuba diving or having altitude sickness)
Your doctor will first conduct a physical exam and ask if you have experienced any recent illnesses or blows to your head. Your doctor may also order tests to rule out causes of your balance problems. These tests may include:
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. This imaging test uses x-rays taken from many angles to get a better picture of inside your body.
- Hearing test.
- Roll test. This test checks for eye movement as your head is moved from side to side.
- Blood tests. These tests may be performed to check for anemia, high or low blood sugar, blood cell counts, thyroid function, liver and kidney function, and chemicals in the blood.
Treatment will depend on the cause of your balance problem. If your dizziness is caused by an inner ear infection, you will be given antibiotics to help treat the infection. You will also be given instructions on how to handle activities that increase the risk of falling, such as driving and walking up and down stairs.
In most cases, dizziness or loss of balance caused by problems with the ears can’t be prevented. You can try to reduce your risk of getting an ear infection — one of the most common causes of a loss of balance — by washing your hands often and getting a flu shot to help decrease your chances of getting infections that may affect your inner ears.