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Vestibular Disorder: A Head-Turning Experience

Are you sometimes (or often) so dizzy that you have to hold onto something to keep from falling? If so, you know how scary that feeling is.

Loss of balance can have a multitude of causes, including low blood pressure, head injury, or even a common cold. One of the reasons behind that unsteady feeling is an inner ear impairment called vestibular disorder, which can lead to decidedly unpleasant symptoms such as vertigo, loss of balance, nausea, and – in worst of cases – a fall.

Before we talk about serious consequences induced by vestibular dysfunction, let’s look at this sensory system that is so important for our balance and health in general.

Dizzy from head to toe

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders defines the vestibular system, a series of fluid-filled canals in the inner ear, as being “responsible for maintaining balance, posture, and the body's orientation in space. This system also regulates locomotion and other movements, and keeps objects in visual focus as the body moves.”

In a healthy person, the vestibular system in both inner ears works equally well, helping us walk straight and stand without dizziness. However, when the vestibular system malfunctions, our sense of balance will be disrupted.

Of course, this is a rather simplified description of a highly complex function, which also encompasses our visual system and the brain. But it gives you a general idea of how crucial vestibular balance is to our well-being and safety.

Balance out of whack

According to a recent comprehensive study carried out among 5,000 men and women over a three-year period by the scientists at Johns Hopkins University, 69 million Americans over age 40 are up to 12 times more likely to have dizziness-induced serious fall caused by an inner-ear dysfunction.

Additionally, more than 22 million of those people were unaware of the potential risk, having had no previous incidents of lack of balance or sudden falls to suggest that anything was wrong with their inner ear function.

Yet, that is a serious problem because accidental falls are among the leading causes of death in the elderly, killing an estimated 13,000 people each year in the United States and resulting in more than one and a half million visits to emergency rooms.

But that is not all. The study also shows that the risk of having a balance problem rises with age and diabetes. In fact, the John Hopkins research demonstrated that people with diabetes were 70 percent more likely to suffer from vestibular dysfunction, which scientists believe is likely caused by high blood sugar levels that, in turn, impact the inner ear’s small blood vessels.

As a matter of fact, diabetes is a well-established cause behind hearing loss – with or without balance issues. A few years ago, The National Institutes of Health analyzed data from hearing tests administered to 5,140 participants between 1999 and 2004 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The researchers found that hearing loss is about twice as common in adults with diabetes compared to those who do not have the disease, adding that more than 40 percent of the patients who participated in the study had some hearing damage.

Steady footing

Vestibular Disorder
Steady your footing by staying in-tuned with your vestibular system

Fortunately, both diabetes and vestibular imbalance are treatable conditions.

Depending on the type of diabetes, treatment may include healthy diet and exercise, supplemented, in some cases, by medications or insulin therapy to keep blood sugar levels under control.

For vestibular disorders, doctors may recommend physical rehabilitation exercises, such as balancing and walking. There are also techniques to “train” the brain to compensate for the inner ear deficiencies. Your health care provider or an otolaryngologist (a specialist in the disorders of the ear, nose or throat) is a good source of pertinent information.

You may be referred to an audiologist for a full vestibular evaluation. Vestibular (balance) testing done by an audiologist will allow the physician to better understand exactly what is behind the vestibular disorder and inner ear issues.

Following testing and diagnosis, a qualified therapist recommended by your health care provider will assess your posture, balance, movement, and compensatory strategies. Based on the findings, he or she will devise a personalized treatment plan of head –eye-body movement exercises intended to strengthen your muscles and get the brain used to interpreting the new pattern of movements.

If you do your exercises regularly and diligently, the dizziness will decrease or, in the best-case scenario, disappear completely.

Of course, no pound of cure (or treatment) is worth an ounce of prevention. Even if your vestibular system is healthy and you currently have no balance problems, there are steps you can take – literally and figuratively – to avoid imbalance-related falls in the future. For example, you could install guardrails along the stairs in your home, and remove obstacles (such as area rugs) that may facilitate a fall.

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