Balance is controlled by a complex network of signals that are sent to the brain from our eyes, inner ears and other sensory systems, via our skin, muscles and joints. It is a delicate equilibrium – if something malfunctions within this system that affects our balance, it can be an unsettling and very disconcerting experience.
A tiny organ in the inner ear called the labyrinth plays an important role in the mechanism of balance. If something goes wrong with the labyrinth it can have a series of unexpected side effects. If the delicate labyrinth picks up an infection, it can become inflamed, affecting both balance and hearing. Sometimes this can be mild and just make you feel disorientated, other times this can be severe, and can result in an inability to stand up unaided.
Symptoms of a balance disorder can be varied, ranging from dizziness or vertigo, to a feeling of falling, general unsteadiness or feeling lightheaded. There may also be blurring of vision or sometimes nausea. Additional symptoms of an infection in the inner ear are pain in the ears, tinnitus (a persistent ringing within the ears), fluid leaking from the ears and a fever.
Different types of labyrinthitis
Labyrinthitis can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection, and is also common in people who have autoimmune conditions. Viral labyrinthitis often results from the spread of infection following a different illness, for example, cold, flu, measles or mumps. If it is caused by a bacterial infection, this tends to be more serious, and can result from illnesses such as meningitis, a middle-ear infection or as a result of trauma from a head injury.
What to do if you’re experiencing balance issues
It is advisable to seek medical assistance if you're experiencing issues with balance to help diagnose the correct cause of the problem. Fortunately, most balance-hindering infections in the inner ear usually clear up after a few weeks, and treatments typically involve a combination of rest, specialised exercise regimes and sometimes medication.