The Vestibular System (attribution: NASA)
Hearing loss is a serious and specific condition that affects a great part of a person’s life both on a psychological and physiological level. Hearing loss can affect your balance. The ear in itself is a very complex organ serving important functions such as processing sound signals and sending them to the brain. At the same time it hosts the vestibular system. Together with the visual system and the proprioception (the orientation of the body parts in space and their sense of position) it is responsible for the body balance and compromising one of these systems can lead to a balance disorder.
How is balance controlled?
A balance disorder may occur in different situations and may have various causes. You can feel dizzy, floaty, unsteady, have blurred vision, suffer disorientation, confusion, faintness or vertigo and even panic or fear. These may happen regardless of the position of the body – lying or standing up. Responsible for the body sense of balance is a structure in the inner ear called the labyrinth, bearing the name due to its specific maze resemblance. The labyrinth is a combination of tissue and bone and is very delicate and complex. It comprises different parts including the semicircular canals and otolithic organs (both in charge of balance) and the cochlea, which is in control of hearing. Together the vestibular and the visual system let the body know its position with respect to earth and gravity and coordinate in such a way so that there is no blurring of objects when moving. The muscles and joints in the body assist in keeping an upright or sitting position via special sensory receptors.
Does hearing loss affect balance?
by itself does not cause balance disorders but problems with the inner ear responsible for the hearing and vestibular system may. This means that hearing loss can occur together with balance impairment symptoms and indicate an underlying condition. Common such symptoms, besides vertigo and dizziness, are nausea, diarrhoea, fluctuating heart rate and blood pressure, depression or anxiety.
Causes for balance disorders
The cooperation of multiple organs result in balance control and the ears play an active part in this system. Thus, problems with the inner ear along with other causes may contribute to a balance disorder. The most common include:
- ear infections,
- blood circulation problems in the inner ear,
- head injury,
- eye muscle imbalance,
- low blood pressure.
To determine the right reason for a balance disorder, you are likely to be directed to an ENT specialist to perform some tests and check if the problem is in the ear (or most specifically in the inner ear). There are some ear infections, such as labyrinthitis that can lead to vertigo and hearing loss at the same time or Ménière's disease that causes vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus and a feeling of fullness in the ear. The problem, however, may be due to medication such as ototoxic drugs or certain types of antibiotics and a possible solution may be a change in the treatment.
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Author: Joan McKechnie
After qualifying as a Speech-Language Pathologist and Audiologist Joan has spent most of her 20 year career in hearing-care related roles. She has a wealth of experience within the hearing aid and hearing rehabilitation fields and has worked in manufacturing environments with two hearing aid companies helping to develop products and roll out new technologies. Joan has been involved with Hearing Direct since its launch and enjoys the online retail environment which seeks to provide easier access to hearing products and accessories. She is HCPC registered
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