Ear problems can cause more difficulties for an individual than just reduced hearing capacity. They can also impact on how you move, walk, stand and balance. Your ears are not just there to help you hear. In fact, they work in conjunction with a range of different systems in your body. If your balance is working fine, you will probably not have any difficulty remaining upright, walking and understanding where you are in relation to other objects in your vicinity. It’s commonly presumed that balance is determined by our eyes and our brain. While visual input plays a large part in keeping us upright and aware of our surroundings, balance is, in fact, a very complex phenomenon. It draws on lots of different inputs from the outside world, and our ears play a crucial role.

Balance problems often start in your ears

Many balance problems that people can experience begin in the ears. Ear balance disorders can make you feel wobbly and unsteady, almost as if you’re constantly moving. These symptoms can impact on your ability to stand and walk. In some instances, they can even make it difficult to sit-up.

It’s clear that ear balance problems can be incredibly distressing, but what exactly is the role of ears in helping you to maintain your balance?

How do we keep our balance?

Our inner ear is made up of a labyrinth of bone and tissue. Our balance system depends on the workings of this labyrinth. It contains semi-circular canals, otolithic organs and the cochlea. The cochlea is used for listening, and the canals help us maintain our balance. The canals resemble three circular loops, and each of these is responsible for sensing a different kind of movement. One canal senses up and down movements, another senses tilting movements and the other senses side-to-side movements. There’s fluid contained in these tubes, and when it moves, the hair cells in the canals pick up on our movement and relay the information to the brain. This makes for an incredibly sensitive system that tells us how we are moving within space. It can pick-up on complex movements, and can spot even subtle changes. It’s able to interpret when we’re moving in a vehicle, or on an elevator.

What problems might occur?

If this system isn’t working properly it can lead to a variety of potential problems, all of which impact on our balance. This can include dizziness, vertigo and nausea. All of these are severe issues that can potentially have a dramatic impact on our quality of lives.

Can hearing loss cause balance problems?

Although hearing loss and balance issues are often tied together, they do not always occur together. Not everyone who has hearing loss issues will experience balance issues and vice versa. Meniere’s disease and labyrinthitis can both cause hearing and balance problems.

What are balance disorders?

Any condition that leads to issues with balance or causes vertigo can be described as a balance disorder. They can be caused by commonplace problems such as ear infections, or low blood pressure. They can occasionally be indicative of more serious issues, like improper blood circulation or tumours.

Whatever is the cause of your balance disorder, it should be treated seriously. Balance disorders can be very stressful and upsetting, and there’s no guarantee they will get better by themselves. A person struggling with their balance might feel that they’re spinning, or perhaps tipping over while standing still. Many sufferers report that they experience rolling vertigo whenever they turn their head, particularly when they’re getting out of bed. They might find themselves stumbling, and feel they need to hold onto walls. They could even find themselves being dragged to the ground.

Some common causes of balance disorders

The severity of symptoms can vary from case to case and will depend on the causes of the balance disorder.

* Labyrinthitis – an infection of the inner ear, caused by when a structure within the inner ear becomes irritated and inflamed.
* Meniere’s disease – a heightened pressure within the labyrinth that can cause hearing loss, tinnitus and vertigo.
* Positional vertigo – a relatively harmless condition, caused by head injury or age. Loose otoconia or bio-crystals, circulate in your ear canals.
* Mal de Debarquement Syndrome (MdDS) – this is a leftover sensation following on from an extended period of movement. Many people experience this after a period of time spent on a boat, running on a treadmill, or getting off a fairground ride.
* Perilymph fistula – this is when fluid from the inner ear leaks into the middle ear. It can occur at birth, after head injuries, during infections, after scuba diving or as a result of surgery.

How do you treat balance disorders?

The treatment of balance disorders depends greatly on the severity of the condition and its causes. Infections can usually be treated with antibiotics. Illnesses like Meniere’s disease will need a different medication. People with ongoing or untreatable balance issues might use ear balance disorder exercises, or Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT).

Can hearing aids help?

As hearing aids enhance the quality and amount of sound reaching the eardrum, it can give the brain a clearer idea of its surroundings. The individual is better able to interpret auditory landmarks in their immediate vicinity, all of which helps to improve their overall balance.

A 2018 study by the University of Washington Medicine School [ https://source.wustl.edu/2014/12/hearing-aids-may-improve-balance/], discovered that patients with hearing aids, performed significantly better on standard balance tests when they had their hearing aids turned on, compared to when they were turned off. This study confirms that the balance system is impacted by the amount of sound the brain receives, as much as it is by the sensitive balance system located in the inner-ear. This means that older people with reduced hearing are less likely to be susceptible to slips and falls if they use a hearing aid.

Healthy ears and good overall hearing play a vital role in helping us keep our balance. You can find advice about balance problems, find out more about common ear disorders and the importance of regular hearing checks at London Hearing.