Have you ever jumped out of bed really quickly in the morning and then suddenly felt like the room was spinning? Nearly everyone gets “dizzy spells” at one point in their lives, episodes where they feel dizzy or like they are floating or unsteady and going to fall. However, while an occasional dizzy spell is probably nothing to worry about, if you feel this way a lot – or all the time – you might just have something called a balance disorder.

What is Balance?

You may know when you have – or don’t have! – a sense of balance. But balance itself can be hard to define.  A good working definition of balance is your body’s sense of where it is in space and in relation to other objects such as floors, walls, etc.,  Many parts of your body – including sensors in your chest, neck and legs, your eyes, your ears and your brain all help your body to maintain your balance.  But this also means that when things go wrong with ears, eyes or the brain, it can cause you to have problems with balance, too.

What is a Balance Disorder?

A balance disorder refers to any one of several conditions that can give you a sensation of dizziness or giddiness or make you feel like you are unsteady on your feet.  If this happens often or always happens in certain situations (such as when you stand up), it is important to talk to a doctor about this problem, as it might mean that you have a balance disorder.

What Causes Balance Disorders?

For some kids (and grown-ups), it is not always clear what is causing a balance disorder. For others, possible reasons can include:

  • Some medications (especially blood pressure pills or medications called diuretics, which cause you to urinate more often)
  • Low blood pressure or blood pressure that drops suddenly
  • Head injuries
  • Inner ear infections or dysfunction
  • Neurological problems (these can affect how the brain processes information in your environment that helps you keep your balance)
  • Problems with the muscles around your eyes

How Do You Know if You Have a Balance Disorder?

Every person is different, but you might have a balance disorder if you have any of the following symptoms, especially if you get them frequently:

  • Feeling dizzy or feeling like the room is spinning
  • Feeling faint or like you might pass out
  • Feeling as though you are falling or floating
  • Being confused or disoriented
  • Feeling nauseous and/or throwing up
  • Anxiety, fear or panic
  • Feeling nauseous or throwing up, with or without diarrhea
  • Changes in your blood pressure and how fast your heart is beating

Are There Different Kinds of Balance Disorders?

The term “balance disorder” is what is called an “umbrella term”, meaning that it can refer to a variety of conditions that cause problems with balance.  The most common types of balance disorder include:

  • Vestibular Neuronitis, or an inflammation/infection of the vestibular nerve
  • Meniere’s Disease, which can cause a change in the amount of fluid in the inner ear; this change, in turn, can bring about symptoms like loss of hearing, vertigo, ringing in the ears (called tinnitus) or a feeling of fullness in the ears
  • Labrynthitis, or the infection/inflammation of the inner ear, which is a key player in the body’s ability to balance.
  • Benign Paroxysmal Vertigo (BPV), a condition which causes feelings of dizziness and giddiness when someone turns their head or changes positions. This is due when loose crystals in the inner ear enter into another part of the ear called the semi-circular canal and interferes with signals to the brain
  • Benign Paroxysmal Torticollis. This balance problem affects babies up to age 6 months and is often diagnosed when they try to keep their head tilted to one side to make up for this imbalance. Babies with this condition can have headaches, throw up and sweat more than is normal.

How are Balance Disorders Diagnosed?

Depending on the kind of balance disorder someone has, they can be diagnosed either by a general practice or family physician (your family doctor) or by an ear, nose and threat (ENT) specialist, also called an otolaryngologist. Diagnosis is based on getting information about a patient’s signs and symptoms and their personal and family history as well as a physical exam, which usually includes a hearing exam and tests to measure the movements of the eye.  Imaging tests of the brain may also be taken to help a doctor in his or her diagnosis.

How Does A Doctor Treat Balance Disorders?

Treatment of a balance disorder will depend on the specific type of disorder a patient has. Possible treatments can include:

  • Treating the underlying condition (for instance, giving an antibiotic to treat an ear infection which is causing the balance problem)
  • In the case of BPPV, patients can be taught to treat themselves with a positioning exercise called the Epley maneuver.
  • Meniere’s disease may require patients to make lifestyle changes like following a certain diet and quitting smoking if they are smokers; surgery may also be required
  • Medications to treat vertigo or nausea
  • Corticosteroids to help reduce inflammation

Balance disorders can be quite easy – or quite difficult – to treat, depending on the specific type of disorder a patient has.  But if you are having a lot of problems with dizziness and giddiness and the issue doesn’t seem to be going away, be sure to see your doctor or talk to a grown-up about it, as it sometimes can be caused by an underlying condition that also will need treatment.