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Frequently Asked Questions

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  • How can I help my doctor make a diagnosis of a balance disorder?

    You can take the following steps that may be helpful to your physician in determining a diagnosis and treatment plan.

    • Bring a written list of symptoms to your doctor.
    • Bring a list of medications currently being used for balance disorders to your doctor.
    • Be specific when you describe the nature of your symptoms to your doctor. For example, describe how, when, and where you experience dizziness.

    Lastly, remember to write down any instructions or tips your doctor gives you.

  • What are the symptoms of a balance disorder?

    When balance is impaired, an individual has difficulty maintaining orientation. For example, an individual may experience the "room spinning" and may not be able to walk without staggering, or may not even be able to arise. Some of the symptoms a person with a balance disorder may experience are:

    • A sensation of dizziness or vertigo (spinning).
    • Falling or a feeling of falling.
    • Lightheadedness or feeling woozy.
    • Visual blurring.
    • Disorientation.

    Some individuals may also experience nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, faintness, changes in heart rate and blood pressure, fear, anxiety, or panic. Some reactions to the symptoms are fatigue, depression, and decreased concentration. The symptoms may appear and disappear over short time periods or may last for a longer period of time.

  • What causes a balance disorder?

    Infections (viral or bacterial), head injury, disorders of blood circulation affecting the inner ear or brain, certain medications, and aging may change our balance system and result in a balance problem. Individuals who have illnesses, brain disorders, or injuries of the visual or skeletal systems, such as eye muscle imbalance and arthritis, may also experience balance difficulties. A conflict of signals to the brain about the sensation of movement can cause motion sickness (for instance, when an individual tries to read while riding in a car). Some symptoms of motion sickness are dizziness, sweating, nausea, vomiting, and generalized discomfort. Balance disorders can be due to problems in any of four areas:

    • Peripheral vestibular disorder, a disturbance in the labyrinth.
    • Central vestibular disorder, a problem in the brain or its connecting nerves.
    • Systemic disorder, a problem of the body other than the head and brain.
    • Vascular disorder, or blood flow problems.

  • What are some types of balance disorders?

    Some of the more common balance disorders are:

    Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)--a brief, intense sensation of vertigo that occurs because of a specific positional change of the head. An individual may experience BPPV when rolling over to the left or right upon getting out of bed in the morning, or when looking up for an object on a high shelf. The cause of BPPV is not known, although it may be caused by an inner ear infection, head injury, or aging.

    Labyrinthitis--an infection or inflammation of the inner ear causing dizziness and loss of balance.

    Meniere's disease--an inner ear fluid balance disorder that causes episodes of vertigo, fluctuating hearing loss, tinnitus (a ringing or roaring in the ears), and the sensation of fullness in the ear. The cause of Meniere's disease is unknown.

    Vestibular neuronitis--an infection of the vestibular nerve, generally viral.

    Perilymph fistula--a leakage of inner ear fluid to the middle ear. It can occur after head injury, physical exertion or, rarely, without a known cause.

  • How does the balance system work?

    Movement of fluid in the semicircular canals signals the brain about the direction and speed of rotation of the head--for example, whether we are nodding our head up and down or looking from right to left. Each semicircular canal has a bulbed end, or enlarged portion, that contains hair cells. Rotation of the head causes a flow of fluid, which in turn causes displacement of the top portion of the hair cells that are embedded in the jelly-like cupula. Two other organs that are part of the vestibular system are the utricle and saccule. These are called the otolithic organs and are responsible for detecting linear acceleration, or movement in a straight line. The hair cells of the otolithic organs are blanketed with a jelly-like layer studded with tiny calcium stones called otoconia. When the head is tilted or the body position is changed with respect to gravity, the displacement of the stones causes the hair cells to bend.

    Diagram explaining how hairs in the ear work.

     

    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 and the skeletal systems. An example of interaction between the visual and vestibular systems is called the vestibular-ocular reflex. The nystagmus (an involuntary rhythmic eye movement) that occurs when a person is spun around and then suddenly stops is an example of a vestibular-ocular reflex.

    This figure shows nerve activity associated with rotational-induced physiologic nystagmus and spontaneous nystagmus resulting from a lesion of one labyrinth.

     

    This figure shows nerve activity associated with rotational-induced physiologic nystagmus and spontaneous nystagmus resulting from a lesion of one labyrinth. Thin straight arrows--direction of slow components; thick straight arrows--direction of fast components; curved arrows--direction of endolymph flow in the horizontal semicircular canals: AC--anterior canal, PC--posterior canal, HC--horizontal canal.

  • What is a balance disorder?

    A balance disorder is a disturbance that causes an individual to feel unsteady, giddy, woozy, or have a sensation of movement, spinning, or floating. An organ in our inner ear, the labyrinth, is an important part of our vestibular (balance) system. The labyrinth interacts with other systems in the body, such as the visual (eyes) and skeletal (bones and joints) systems, to maintain the body's position. These systems, along with the brain and the nervous system, can be the source of balance problems.

    Three structures of the labyrinth, the semicircular canals, let us know when we are in a rotary (circular) motion. The semicircular canals, the superior, posterior, and horizontal, are fluid-filled. Motion of the fluid tells us if we are moving. The semicircular canals and the visual and skeletal systems have specific functions that determine an individual's orientation. The vestibule is the region of the inner ear where the semicircular canals converge, close to the cochlea (the hearing organ). The vestibular system works with the visual system to keep objects in focus when the head is moving. Joint and muscle receptors also are important in maintaining balance. The brain receives, interprets, and processes the information from these systems that control our balance.

    Diagram of the ear

     

  • What research is being done on hearing aids?

    Researchers are looking at ways to apply new signal processing strategies to the design of hearing aids. Signal processing is the method used to modify normal sound waves into amplified sound that is the best possible match to the remaining hearing for a hearing aid user. NIDCD-funded researchers also are studying how hearing aids can enhance speech signals to improve understanding.

    In addition, researchers are investigating the use of computer-aided technology to design and manufacture better hearing aids. Researchers also are seeking ways to improve sound transmission and to reduce noise interference, feedback, and the occlusion effect. Additional studies focus on the best ways to select and fit hearing aids in children and other groups whose hearing ability is hard to test.

    Another promising research focus is to use lessons learned from animal models to design better microphones for hearing aids. NIDCD-supported scientists are studying the tiny fly Ormia ochracea because its ear structure allows the fly to determine the source of a sound easily. Scientists are using the fly's ear structure as a model for designing miniature directional microphones for hearing aids. These microphones amplify the sound coming from a particular direction (usually the direction a person is facing), but not the sounds that arrive from other directions. Directional microphones hold great promise for making it easier for people to hear a single conversation, even when surrounded by other noises and voices. 

  • Are New Types and Styles of Hearing Aids Available?

    Although they work differently than the hearing aids described above, implantable hearing aids are designed to help increase the transmission of sound vibrations entering the inner ear. A middle ear implant (MEI) is a small device attached to one of the bones of the middle ear. Rather than amplifying the sound traveling to the eardrum, an MEI moves these bones directly. Both techniques have the net result of strengthening sound vibrations entering the inner ear so that they can be detected by individuals with sensorineural hearing loss.

    A bone-anchored hearing aid (BAHA) is a small device that attaches to the bone behind the ear. The device transmits sound vibrations directly to the inner ear through the skull, bypassing the middle ear. BAHAs are generally used by individuals with middle ear problems or deafness in one ear. Because surgery is required to implant either of these devices, many hearing specialists feel that the benefits may not outweigh the risks. 

  • How can I adjust to my hearing aid?

    Hearing aids take time and patience to use successfully. Wearing your aids regularly will help you adjust to them.

    Become familiar with your hearing aid's features. With your Audiologist present, practice putting in and taking out the aid, cleaning it, identifying right and left aids, and replacing the batteries. Ask how to test it in listening environments where you have problems with hearing. Learn to adjust the aid's volume and to program it for sounds that are too loud or too soft. Work with your Audiologist until you are comfortable and satisfied.

    You may experience some of the following problems as you adjust to wearing your new aid.

    • My hearing aid feels uncomfortable. Some individuals may find a hearing aid to be slightly uncomfortable at first. Ask your Audiologist how long you should wear your hearing aid while you are adjusting to it.

    • My voice sounds too loud. The “plugged-up” sensation that causes a hearing aid user's voice to sound louder inside the head is called the occlusion effect, and it is very common for new hearing aid users. Check with your Audiologist to see if a correction is possible. Most individuals get used to this effect over time.

    • I get feedback from my hearing aid. A whistling sound can be caused by a hearing aid that does not fit or work well or is clogged by earwax or fluid. See your Audiologist for adjustments.

    • I hear background noise. A hearing aid does not completely separate the sounds you want to hear from the ones you do not want to hear. Sometimes, however, the hearing aid may need to be adjusted. Talk with your Audiologist.

    • I hear a buzzing sound when I use my cell phone. Some people who wear hearing aids or have implanted hearing devices experience problems with the radio frequency interference caused by digital cell phones. Both hearing aids and cell phones are improving, however, so these problems are occurring less often. When you are being fitted for a new hearing aid, take your cell phone with you to see if it will work well with the aid. 

  • Do all hearing aids work the same way?

    Hearing aids work differently depending on the electronics used. The two main types of electronics are analog and digital.

    Analog aids convert sound waves into electrical signals, which are amplified. Analog/adjustable hearing aids are custom built to meet the needs of each user. The aid is programmed by the manufacturer according to the specifications recommended by your Audiologist. Analog/programmable hearing aids have more than one program or setting. An Audiologist can program the aid using a computer, and the user can change the program for different listening environments – from a small, quiet room to a crowded restaurant to large, open areas, such as a theater or stadium. Analog/programmable circuitry can be used in all types of hearing aids. Analog aids usually are less expensive than digital aids.

    Digital aids convert sound waves into numerical codes, similar to the binary code of a computer, before amplifying them. Because the code also includes information about a sound's pitch or loudness, the aid can be specially programmed to amplify some frequencies more than others. Digital circuitry gives an Audiologist more flexibility in adjusting the aid to a user's needs and to certain listening environments. These aids also can be programmed to focus on sounds coming from a specific direction. Digital circuitry can be used in all types of hearing aids.