Your ears play a major role in balance and movement.
The organs in your inner ear make up the vestibular system and sense the position of your head in space. The vestibular system works together with your vision and somatosensory system — the position sense you gain from your feet on the ground — to send information to your brain in order to manage balance. If any system is not working, it impacts your balance and makes you feel unsteady.
Dizziness can be described as many different sensations, like feeling unsteady, lightheaded or unbalanced. It is a common complaint and can occur at any age. The feeling that you are spinning or the room is spinning is sometimes mistaken as dizziness, but it’s something entirely different: vertigo. When you experience vertigo, it’s often due to a problem with the vestibular system.
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)
The most common type of vertigo is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. Certain head positions trigger short, sudden spells of spinning because a calcium crystal is dislodged from its home in your inner ear and gets into the semicircular canals. As the crystal moves, it causes the nerve cells in the ear to send false signals to your brain and make you feel like you’re spinning.
Fortunately, BPPV is one of the easiest types of vertigo to treat. Typically, all it takes is the Epley maneuver, which uses gravity to remove the crystals from the semicircular canals by moving your head through a series of different positions. Most patients can get back to normal within one to two visits.
When one ear isn’t functioning as well as the other, you can have difficulty maintaining your balance and seeing clearly during head movements. This is another type of vestibular disorder known as vestibular hypofunction. Physical therapists trained in vestibular rehabilitation can teach you exercises to improve the coordination of input between your vision, inner ear and brain. By finding the movement that triggers the dizziness, PTs can show you how to gradually progress the speed or position of these symptomatic movements to desensitize or habituate the vestibular system.
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded from time to time is common and not always easy to describe. But if your bouts of dizziness cause balance issues or feel more like vertigo, it’s likely an issue with your ears or other balance systems. Take note of which triggers make your head spin and consult with your primary care provider.