Senior Help Desk healthcare video and blog credited to The National Institute on Aging, part of NIH www.nia.nih.gov
Balance problems are among the most common reasons that older adults seek help from a doctor. They are often caused by disturbances of the inner ear. Vertigo, the feeling that you or the things around you are spinning, is a common symptom.
Having good balance means being able to control and maintain your body's position, whether you are moving or remaining still. Good balance helps you walk without staggering, get up from a chair without falling, climb stairs without tripping, and bend over without falling. Good balance is important to help you get around, stay independent, and carry out daily activities.
Balance disorders are one reason older people fall. Learn more about falls and falls prevention from NIA. Visit the website of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders for information on specific balance disorders.
Causes of Balance Problems
People are more likely to have problems with balance as they get older. But age is not the only reason these problems occur. In some cases, you can help reduce your risk for certain balance problems.
Some balance disorders are caused by problems in the inner ear. The part of the inner ear that is responsible for balance is the vestibular system, also known as the labyrinth. A condition called labyrinthitis occurs when the labyrinth becomes infected or swollen. It is typically accompanied by vertigo and imbalance. Upper respiratory infections, other viral infections, and, less commonly, bacterial infections can also lead to labyrinthitis.
Some diseases of the circulatory system, such as stroke, can cause dizziness and other balance problems. Low blood pressure can also cause dizziness. Head injury and many medicines may also lead to balance problems.
Check with your doctor if you notice a problem while taking a medication. Ask if other medications can be used instead. If not, ask if the dosage can be safely reduced. Sometimes it cannot. However, your doctor will help you get the medication you need while trying to reduce unwanted side effects.
Symptoms of Balance Disorders
If you have a balance disorder, you may stagger when you try to walk, or teeter or fall when you try to stand up. You might experience other symptoms such as:
- Dizziness or vertigo (a spinning sensation)
- Falling or feeling as if you are going to fall
- Lightheadedness, faintness, or a floating sensation
- Blurred vision
- Confusion or disorientation
Other symptoms might include nausea and vomiting; diarrhea; changes in heart rate and blood pressure; and fear, anxiety, or panic. Symptoms may come and go over short time periods or last for a long time, and can lead to fatigue and depression.
Do I Have a Balance Problem? Questions to Ask Yourself
You can help identify a balance problem by asking yourself some key questions. If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, discuss the symptom with your doctor.
- Do I feel unsteady?
- Do I feel as if the room is spinning around me, even only for brief periods of time?
- Do I feel as if I'm moving when I know I'm standing or sitting still?
- Do I lose my balance and fall?
- Do I feel as if I'm falling?
- Do I feel lightheaded, or as if I might faint?
- Does my vision become blurred?
- Do I ever feel disoriented, losing my sense of time, place, or identity?
If you think that you have a balance disorder, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist, a doctor with special training in problems of the ear, nose, throat, head, and neck.
Balance disorders can be signs of other health problems, such as an ear infection, stroke, or multiple sclerosis. In some cases, you can help treat a balance disorder by seeking medical treatment for the illness that is causing the disorder.
Some exercises help make up for a balance disorder by moving the head and body in certain ways. The exercises are developed especially for a patient by a professional (often a physical therapist) who understands the balance system and its relationship with other systems in the body.
Balance problems due to high blood pressure can be managed by eating less salt (sodium), maintaining a healthy weight, and exercising. Balance problems due to low blood pressure may be managed by drinking plenty of fluids, such as water, avoiding alcohol, and being cautious regarding your body's posture and movement, such as standing up slowly and avoiding crossing your legs when you’re seated.
Coping with a Balance Disorder
Some people with a balance disorder may not be able to fully relieve their dizziness and will need to find ways to cope with it. A vestibular rehabilitation therapist can help you develop an individualized treatment plan.
If you have trouble with your balance, talk to your doctor about whether it’s safe to drive, and about ways to lower your risk of falling during daily activities, such as walking up or down stairs, using the bathroom, or exercising. To reduce your risk of injury from dizziness, avoid walking in the dark. You should also wear low-heeled shoes or walking shoes outdoors. If necessary, use a cane or walker, and modify conditions at your home and workplace, such as by adding handrails.
For More Information on Balance Problems
National Library of Medicine