Having brief episodes of dizziness or feeling unsteady on your feet from time to time can be common as people age. But sometimes these symptoms are associated with a more serious problem. If you’ve been feeling off balance, light-headed, or shaky, or you have had a fall, here are more details to help you decide whether you need to see a healthcare professional about your symptoms.
What is a balance disorder?
A balance disorder is a condition in which a person frequently feels dizzy or unbalanced while standing, sitting, or lying down and these symptoms continue over a period of time. Most often, balance problems that are not associated with a balance disorder go away on their own within 1-2 weeks. But if you frequently feel dizzy, light-headed, or unstable, then you could have a balance disorder.
What are the symptoms of balance disorder?
- Dizziness (or vertigo) that is often described as a spinning sensation
- Feeling unsteady or unbalanced, as if you are going to fall
- Light-headedness, “near fainting” (called pre-syncope), or a floating sensation
- Blurred vision
- Confusion or disorientation
For some people, symptoms vary depending on whether they are moving or being still. For example, if they are standing, sitting, or lying down they feel like they are moving or spinning. If they are walking, they feel as though they are about to topple over.
What causes balance disorder?
Inner ear problems are common causes of a balance disorder, especially in younger people. Other causes can include medicine side effects, vision problems, problems with nerves in the legs or feet, allergies, infections, arthritis, anxiety, low blood pressure, and dehydration. For some people, there is no obvious cause of their balance disorder.
Three of the most common inner ear problems that cause balance disorder are:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo – small calcium particles in the inner ear get displaced and disrupt inner ear balance, causing a brief, intense feeling of dizziness or light-headedness when changing positions, especially when turning the head side to side
- Labyrinthitis – infection or inflammation of the inner ear that causes dizziness and loss of balance
- Meniere’s disease – a disorder of the inner ear causing symptoms of vertigo (severe dizziness), hearing loss, ringing in the ear, or a feeling of fullness in the ear; this disease usually only affects one ear
How is balance disorder treated?
There are many different treatments for balance disorders, which vary according to the cause. Exercises, physical therapy, medicines, and lifestyle changes are some examples of treatment for balance disorder. Once a doctor determines the cause, treatment is usually simple and effective.
Why is balance disorder a concern?
The risk of having balance problems increases as people get older, especially after age 75. Balance problems can be an issue in adults over age 65 because they are linked to falls. Falls and fall-related injuries can have a profound impact on a person’s life, sometimes limiting activity, decreasing the ability to live independently, and even causing life-threatening injury.
What should I do if I think I have a balance disorder?
Make an appointment to see your primary care provider to discuss your symptoms. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history and will need to know all the medicines you are taking. Your doctor will probably ask whether you have had a fall and the circumstances around the fall. In some cases, your doctor may refer you to a specialist, such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose & throat doctor) or cardiologist.
Balance Disorders, NIDCD
Balance Problems, American Geriatrics Society
Balance Problems, Medline Plus
Balance Problems, NIH Senior Health