A balance disorder is a disturbance that causes an individual to feel unsteady, giddy, woozy, or have a sensation of movement, spinning, or floating. Balance is the result of a number of body systems working together. Specifically, in order to achieve balance, the eyes (visual system), ears (vestibular system) and the body’s sense of where it is in space (proprioception) need to be intact. Also the brain, which compiles this information, needs to be functioning normally.
The balance system works with the visual and skeletal systems (the muscles and joints and their sensors) to maintain orientation or balance. For example, visual signals are sent to the brain about the body’s position in relation to its surroundings. These signals are processed by the brain, and compared to information from the vestibular, visual and the skeletal systems.
Trauma or Injury to the skull may cause either a fracture or a concussion to the organ of balance. In either case an acute head injury will often result in dizziness and a sudden loss of vestibular function.
Diagnosis of a balance disorder is complicated because there are many kinds of balance disorders and because other medical conditions – including ear infections, blood pressure changes, and some vision problems – and some medications may contribute to a balance disorder. A person experiencing dizziness should see a physician for an evaluation. Once diagnosed with, or cleared of a medical disorder, a physiotherapist can assess balance in detail.
The primary physician may request the opinion of an otolaryngologist to help evaluate a balance problem. An otolaryngologist is a physician/surgeon who specializes in diseases and disorders of the ear, nose, throat, head, and neck, sometimes with expertise in balance disorders. He or she will usually obtain a detailed medical history and perform a physical examination to start to sort out possible causes of the balance disorder. The physician may require tests and make additional referrals to assess the cause and extent of the disruption of balance. The kinds of tests needed will vary based on the patient’s symptoms and health status. Because there are so many variables, not all patients will require every test.