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An Introduction to Vestibular Disorders

Article contributed by the Ménière’s Society

Sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSNHL) can sometimes be accompanied by vestibular (balance) disturbances such as vertigo, dizziness or balance problems.

The Balance System

With vestibular disorders, such as Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), labyrinthitisMeniere’s disease/syndrome, Persistent Postural-Perceptual Dizziness (PPPD) and vestibular migraine, the balance organ in the inner ear is affected.

The balance system works by coordinating information in your brain from the three senses used for balance:

(1) The balance organ in your inner ear

(2) Your eyes

(3) Your internal sense of the position/movement of your body

As the balance organ is faulty, the brain becomes more dependent on information coming from the eyes and sensors in your body. This makes you much more sensitive to situations which can cause dizziness, such as disorientating environments and times when you are under stress.

Not all symptoms of dizziness experienced will be due to the balance organ – some will be caused because the balance system cannot cope with the situation you are in. If you feel dizzy, it means your brain has not been able to coordinate the information from all the balance senses properly. This could be due to a problem in the brain or with any of the balance senses.

Vertigo

Vertigo (severe dizziness) is a symptom rather than a condition. It is defined as an illusion of movement and is a specific type of dizziness which causes the person to feel the sensation they, or their surroundings, are moving, even if they are standing completely still. Some people describe vertigo as feeling ‘wobbly’ or the sensation of spinning, swaying and dizziness. Episodes of vertigo can vary from seconds or minutes to a couple of hours, however bouts of vertigo can last for days. Vertigo is a symptom of many different conditions and can happen to people of all ages.

As well as vertigo (dizziness) people with vestibular conditions may also experience hearing loss, tinnitus, fullness, headaches, sensitivity to noise, nausea and imbalance.

It is very important to find out the cause of your symptoms and you should see your GP for advice, treatment and referral to a specialist if necessary.

Living with a Vestibular Condition

Living with a vestibular disorder can be distressing and sometimes debilitating, but over time most people learn to manage their symptoms and any associated problems. Here are some tips on how to cope day-to-day.

Woman walking on a path through a forest. Trees with autumn leaves of orange and brown are on both sides.
  • Stay active as regular exercise is important for maintaining flexibility and strength to help you balance. Walking helps your circulation and general fitness, as well as building confidence; if you don’t feel confident to go out on your own, ask someone to go with you.
  • People who suffer with dizziness and imbalance caused by an inner ear disorder may experience, stress, anxiety or even panic attacks. When you feel particularly stressed, anxious, angry or fearful, you may be more likely to experience dizziness. This is because some of your body’s automatic reflexes are linked to your emotions and thoughts through a process called the “fight or flight” response. Your brain interprets any strong emotions or frightening thoughts as a signal you are in danger, and automatically prepares your body to either fight or run away. This means your heart rate increases and your breathing gets faster as blood is pumped to your muscles. A side effect of this is you may feel sick or dizzy, since breathing too fast causes you to take in too much oxygen, which can make you dizzy. Living with dizziness, along with the constant fear of if or when an attack will happen can be frightening and coping can be made more difficult if you are excessively anxious. It is important for you to assess and, if necessary, adjust your lifestyle to minimise stressful influences. Talk to your GP and seek help if your anxiety won’t go away.
  • Carry your medication with you at all times.
  • Some people find wearing sunglasses helps relieve eye strain.
  • Many people with vertigo find changes in their diet such as reducing salt, caffeine and/or alcohol, or taking certain supplements, can help with their symptoms. While these won’t prevent the symptoms from occurring, they may help to reduce the severity of them.
  • There are legal obligations that apply to those who suffer from, or develop, sudden attacks of unprovoked or unprecipitated disabling giddiness and wish to continue driving. You are required by law to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), as well as the company which insures any vehicle you drive of your condition. Visit the DVLA website for more information.
  • Find out if there is a peer support group near you as contact with others in a similar situation can be very comforting as they understand what you are going through. Alternatively, talking to a trusted friend or relative can be helpful to give you reassurance.

About The Ménière’s Society

The Ménière’s Society is a leading charity supporting people living with dizziness and imbalance caused by vestibular disorders. We offer access to extensive information, an information line and encourage peer support.

For more information please visit our website https://www.menieres.org.uk/ or call us on 01306 876883 to chat with one of our team.

The Ménière’s Society recommends you always consult your GP, consultant or therapist for professional guidance before you begin, change, temporarily suspend or discontinue any treatment, medication, exercise or diet. The Society cannot advise on individual cases nor accept any liability resulting from the use of any treatments referred to in this information.