Nearly 90 million Americans – more than one-third of the population –
report bouts of dizziness at some point in their lives. Of these, 76
million suffer from inner-ear disorders, which can be caused by whiplash,
blows to the head, viral infections, high doses of certain antibiotics,
strokes or degeneration of the inner ear’s balance function, also known as
the vestibular system, which often deteriorates with age.
Balance disorders significantly reduce the quality of life for those
individuals affected. The brain receives signals from the eyes, muscles
and joints and from the inner ear, which contains semicircular canals
filled with moving fluid. Head movements stimulate the inner ear by
moving the fluid through the canals, thus sending messages to the brain
about the position of the head and the body. A slight malfunction in any
of these systems could cause a problem.
For the majority, an inner ear disorder is the cause of unsteadiness,
loss of balance, dizziness or that whirling sensation called “vertigo.”
When the inner ear sends the brain incorrect information, or conflicting
signals, the person feels dizzy. The usual response to this sensation is
to limit movement so as to minimize the rocking or spinning sensations.
Other possible causes for problems with balance or dizziness are
metabolic inner ear or nervous system disorders, which often respond
well to prompt treatment.
Diagnosing balance disorders of the inner ear involves specialized
tests. These include:
Electronystagmography The patient is put
through a series of tests involving light and movement, and warm or cool
water is placed in the ear canals. The tests determine whether there is
a weakness on one side or the other and identifies where the weakness is.
Moving Platform Posturography The balance
system is made up of sight, the vestibular system, and the way you feel
or sense the world through your muscle and joints. Even the pressure of
the ground on the soles of your feet gives you information about
balance. The platform posturography looks at each individual system and
tries to identify where the problem is.
In this test, the patient stands on a platform and the position of the
platform is changed. The patient’s head is also put into various
positions. The patient’s posture is measured with his eyes open and with
his eyes closed in each position.
Evoked Potentials Patients are fitted with
headphones and given a series of sounds, such as clicks. These sounds
test the condition of the auditory system as well as the nerve
conduction to the brain.
Treatment may include medications that help with vertigo (the sense that
things are revolving). Several common medications for vertigo are
Bonine™, Dramamine™, Bucladin™ and Antivert™. Another possible treatment
is alteration in diet, such as reducing salt intake (salt causes the
body, including ears, to retain fluid). Other possibilities are physical
therapy and/or surgery.
For more information:
Go to the Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders health topic.