Many factors can cause balance problems. As we age, both our hearing and our balance can start to fail. Of course, an older person with a poor balance is at greater risk if they suffer a fall, so any balance issues must be studied and corrected as soon as possible.
The Functions of the Ear
Our ears are multi-purpose tools. The vestibular function is what controls our balance. This system is comprised of three looped tubes known as semicircular canals. Every time you tilt or move your head, the vestibular system notes the change and adjusts to keep your body upright. If you’ve ever been dizzy after spinning in a chair for a time, it’s because your vestibular system is trying to get back in balance, but the vestibular nerve cells are catching up to your newly at-rest body. The vestibular system lies deep within the inner ear, above the tiny bones that make up the cochlear system.
The cochlear system is what captures vibrations and routes them to the brain as sound. There are three bones to this system: the hammer, anvil, and stirrup. There are also 12,000 sensory or hair cells that capture incoming sounds. Over time, these cells can be damaged by loud noises, illness, and age. Hearing protection early in your life can make it possible for you to lose less of it as you age.
Inflammation can damage both of these systems. Our sinuses can become inflamed and put pressure on the inner ear, leading to temporary balance problems. Time on a ride at the fair or on a boat can lead to temporary inner ear challenges. However, these sudden challenges generally fade quickly. If you notice that you’re regularly dizzy or always asking people to repeat themselves, you may have damage to the inner ear that can be corrected or an illness that can be treated. A thorough assessment is needed to make sure that your ears are working as effectively as possible.
Balance and Posture
Poor hearing may lead to posture issues that are inherently lopsided. If you can’t hear out of one ear or the other, you may struggle to walk and stand in a balanced fashion; that is:
- with your weight balanced evenly between your two feet
- with your hips and shoulders straight up and facing forward
- with your head fully upright and your eyes facing forward.
Unfortunately, these changes in alignment will happen slowly, over time. As your body becomes accustomed to being misaligned, you may lose strength on one side. You may also start to struggle with joint pain or back pain from moving in a lopsided fashion. Hearing aids can help you return to proper alignment, and working with a physical therapist or a personal trainer can help you rebuild strength once your body is fully aligned.
Diseases that Impact Balance
Conditions such as Meniere’s disease can cause severe life limitations. There are several changes that you can make that can reduce the impact of the dizzy spells of Meniere’s, including:
- a low-salt diet
- reducing your caffeine intake
- anti-epileptic medications
- hearing aids
It should be noted that hearing aids can help in the early stages of Meniere’s, particularly to control the tinnitus that often occurs with the disease. Over time, the effectiveness of hearing aids is reduced.
Get Checked Out
If you suffer from any hearing or balance challenges, it’s critically important that you get tested for the source of the problem. Too often, hearing loss is passed off as a problem of old age and disregarded, but hearing and balance problems can be an indicator of another health condition. Hearing loss and balance problems can be impacted by illnesses from a sinus infection to Parkinson’s disease. Until you have a proper diagnosis to determine the source of the problem, treating your balance issue effectively will be almost impossible.
Once you have your diagnosis, you can go to work on making sure your ears are working properly to keep you steady on your feet. At Becker ENT & Allergy, our audiology team in NJ can help you determine the source of the problem, and the best way to manage or correct it. Once your balance issues are at least manageable if not corrected or under control, you can go to work rebuilding your physical strength, getting your posture back in alignment, and moving forward in confidence.
Our ears are remarkably complex mechanisms. We tend to ignore them until they fail to function effectively. One of the big challenges with ear problems is that they change slowly, so we may not notice we have a hearing or a balance issue until the problem is extremely challenging. The time to get tested is early in the loss or change process, so the correction can be made quickly. One dizzy spell can be ignored, but if it continues, call your doctor.