A balance disorder is a condition that makes you feel unsteady or dizzy, as if you are moving, spinning, or floating, even though you are standing still or lying down. Balance disorders can be caused by certain health conditions, medications, or a problem in the inner ear or the brain.
Our sense of balance is primarily controlled by a maze-like structure in our inner ear called the labyrinth, which is made of bone and soft tissue. At one end of the labyrinth is an intricate system of loops and pouches called the semicircular canals and the otolithic organs, which help us maintain our balance. At the other end is a snail-shaped organ called the cochlea, which enables us to hear. The medical term for all of the parts of the inner ear involved with balance is the vestibular system.
Our vestibular system works with other sensorimotor systems in the body, such as our visual system (eyes) and skeletal system (bones and joints), to check and maintain the position of our body at rest or in motion. It also helps us maintain a steady focus on objects even though the position of our body changes. The vestibular system does this by detecting mechanical forces, including gravity, that act upon our vestibular organs when we move. Two sections of the labyrinth help us accomplish these tasks: the semicircular canals and the otolithic organs.
The semicircular canals are three fluid-filled loops arranged roughly at right angles to each other. They tell the brain when our head moves in a rotating or circular way, such as when we nod our head up and down or look from right to left.
Each semicircular canal has a plump base, which contains a raindrop-shaped structure filled with a gel-like substance. This structure, called the cupula, sits on top of a cluster of sensory cells, called hair cells. The hair cells have long threadlike extensions, called stereocilia, that extend into the gel. When the head moves, fluid inside the semicircular canal moves. This motion causes the cupula to bend and the stereocilia within it to tilt to one side. The tilting action creates a signal that travels to the brain to tell it the movement and position of your head.
Between the semicircular canals and the cochlea lie the otolithic organs, which are two fluid-filled pouches called the utricle and the saccule. These organs tell the brain when our body is moving in a straight line, such as when we stand up or ride in a car or on a bike. They also tell the brain the position of our head with respect to gravity, such as whether we are sitting up, leaning back, or lying down.
Like the semicircular canals, the utricle and the saccule have sensory hair cells. These hair cells line the bottom of each pouch, and their stereocilia extend into an overlying gel-like layer. On top of the gel are tiny grains made of calcium carbonate called otoconia. When you tilt your head, gravity pulls on the grains, which then move the stereocilia. As with the semicircular canals, this movement creates a signal that tells the brain the head’s position.
Our visual system works with our vestibular system to keep objects from blurring when our head moves and to keep us aware of our position when we walk or when we ride in a vehicle. Sensory receptors in our joints and muscles also help us maintain our balance when we stand still or walk. The brain receives, interprets, and processes the information from these systems to control our balance.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is one of the most common causes of vertigo — the sudden sensation that you’re spinning or that the inside of your head is spinning.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo causes brief episodes of mild to intense dizziness. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is usually triggered by specific changes in the position of your head. This might occur when you tip your head up or down, when you lie down, or when you turn over or sit up in bed.
Although benign paroxysmal positional vertigo can be a bothersome problem, it’s rarely serious except when it increases the chance of falls. You can receive effective treatment for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo during a doctor’s office visit.