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Vestibular System Disorders

Ask a group of people to tell you what the vestibular system is, and chances are good that the majority will have no idea. Yet it is one of the most important networks in the human body. Located in the inner ear and brain, it controls our eye movements and our balance.
Ear Anatomy Internal Ear
If age, injury or disease cause damage to the vestibular system, a person will experience distinct symptoms. These include:

  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Disorientation and poor balance
  • Changes in vision and/or hearing
  • Psychological or cognitive changes

There are numerous disorders that can occur if the vestibular system is injured or impaired. The following list only touches upon the most common conditions.

Acoustic Neuroma

This is a non-cancerous but serious tumor that grows on the sheath of the vestibulo-cochlear nerve in the inner ear. This nerve is responsible for transmitting information about sound and balance to the brain.
When the tumor begins to press on the nerve, symptoms such as dizziness, tinnitus and hearing loss occur.

Age-Related Dizziness and Imbalance

An estimated 50 percent of the cases of dizziness in older patients stem from vestibular disorders. Because age can cause a deterioration in many body systems that work alongside the vestibular system to promote good balance, the prevalence of balance problems in the elderly is understandable. Conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, cataracts, diabetes and even arthritis can combine to impair balance. If there is also hearing loss and inner ear deterioration, balance can be affected even more severely.

Autoimmune Inner Ear disease

In an effort to fight disease, there are times when the body’s immune system mistakes healthy tissue for invading viruses or bacteria. When the body’s soldiers attack the ear, the results can mean rapid, permanent hearing loss and balance impairment.

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo

This common condition is caused by calcium carbonate debris in the inner ear. When a person makes a head movement, this debris, informally known as ear rocks, can shift and cause vertigo and dizziness.

Migraine-Associated Vertigo

As the name suggests, this condition occurs while patients are experiencing a migraine. An estimated 25 percent feel vertigo or dizziness regularly during their episodes.

Méniére’s disease

This disorder happens when too much of a fluid called endolymph collects in a patient’s inner ear. The cause of the disease is unknown. It is characterized by four symptoms: fluctuating hearing, dizziness, tinnitus and a feeling of pressure in the ear. The disease is not curable, is progressive and is characterized by attacks in which symptoms are more pronounced.

Throughout our lives, the vestibular system works quietly behind the scenes to regulate balance and vision. It usually does its job so well that we are scarcely aware that it is there. However, when something goes wrong with this delicate communication network, people can experience severe and sometimes permanent symptoms. This underscores the importance of seeking medical attention as soon as the patient becomes aware of severe visual or balance changes.