Maintaining balance is a complex process. It requires a constant stream of information between the eyes, ears, brain, muscles and nervous system. If any of these systems is not functioning correctly, balance can be compromised. This is of special concern in the elderly, who are at a higher risk of breaking a hip during a fall. To help prevent complications, it is important to understand how all of the systems, including the ears, work in balancing the body.
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Having good balance is necessary to perform daily activities. Balance problems are more common in the elderly, although a loss of balance or dizziness can happen at any age. Changes in vision, loss of muscle strength, neurological conditions and medications can all contribute to difficulty balancing. Problems in the inner ear can also be a factor, according to the National Institutes of Health Senior Health website. If any changes in the ability to balance occur, it is important to seek medical attention to make sure it is not being caused by a serious underlying condition.
The ear can be divided into three basic sections: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The outer ear and middle ear are responsible for picking up sounds as vibrations, then sending these signals to the brain to be interpreted. The inner ear houses the semicircular canals and the vestibular organs, which play a direct role in maintaining balance. The semicircular canals and the vestibular organs contain fluid. When the position of the head changes, the fluid moves, which sends signals to the brain that the body's position is changing.
Any time the head moves, such as when nodding up and down or looking right and left, the fluid contained in the semicircular canals shifts as well. As this fluid moves, it places pressure against hairs in the ears. These hairs then send signals to the brain that the body's position is changing. Along with this change, the brain relies on information from the eyes, muscles and nerves as well. If the ears send signals to the brain that the head is moving, information from the eyes is needed to tell the brain if the body is off center or falling. In addition, the muscles and nerves can send signals to the brain if the body's weight has changed or is off balance. With all of this information, the brain can signal the body to respond so a fall does not occur.
Problems within the ears can lead to balance problems. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says any kind of infection or inflammation in the ear can interfere with the ears' ability to sense change and signal the brain. Problems within the inner ear can be temporary and occur with a cold or flu or be chronic such as with Ménière’s disease or a head injury. When the inner ear is not able to properly signal the brain, there can be constant or intermittent feelings of dizziness, vertigo and lightheadedness. In addition to disease as part of the natural aging process, the semicircular canals lose some fluid, and the hairs lose some of their sensitivity. Both can contribute to difficulty maintaining balance in senior citizens.
Treatment of an inner ear condition needs to be multi-faceted. Controlling underlying diseases and conditions with medications may be necessary. According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, after being diagnosed with a balance disorder related to the ears, it is important to attend rehabilitation to learn how to manage dizziness and other symptoms. Balance training exercises done with a therapist, then eventually at home, will need to become part of daily life. This will need to be combined with avoiding movements that create dizziness and slowly retraining the body to move.