Vestibular Dysfunction: Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors and Treatment Options

The main components of the vestibular system are located in the inner ear within interconnected compartments of the vestibular labyrinth. Vestibular signals are mainly processed in various brain regions and are involved in numerous essential functions. They include detecting head motion, posture control, visual gaze, spatial orientation, navigation, and more. This article discusses the causes, symptoms, risk factors, and available treatments for vestibular dysfunction.

What is Vestibular Dysfunction, and What Causes It?

The ear comprises a complex system of bones and cartilage, including a network of semicircular canals filled with fluid. These delicate parts form the vestibular system. The position of the canal fluid changes with movement. An ear sensor feeds the movement information to the brain, which adds to our sense of balance. Certain things can affect the ear-to-brain signals, causing vestibular system dysfunction.

Patients diagnosed with vestibular dysfunction experience multiple symptoms, but most commonly sudden vertigo, which can leave them feeling disoriented. An inner ear problem, such as poor circulation in the ear, is thought to be the main culprit. Nonetheless, a traumatic brain injury, certain medicines, a sedentary lifestyle, and viral infections like herpes, flu, hepatitis, etc., can also cause vestibular balance dysfunction. Calcium deposits within the semicircular canals can also affect communication signals of the parts of the vestibular system.

What are its Common Symptoms?

The vestibular sensory system is essential for normal equilibrium, gaze stabilization, navigation, and spatial orientation. It also plays a pivotal role in different motor functions that help maintain our head and body posture during movement. A balance test, brain imaging, or a posture and movement exam called posturography is advisable if you’re experiencing the following symptoms of the vestibular disorder;

  • Motion sickness 
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Feeling off-balance
  • Spinning sensations
  • Difficulty focusing eyes or vision disturbance (oscillopsia) that may cause stumbling
  • Less common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heart palpitations, anxiety, and fear

If an injury or disease damages the link between your inner ear and brain, you may have one of the following types of vestibular disorders;

  • Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): this positional dizziness is common in older adults (50+ years) and is caused by calcium crystal accumulation, resulting in spinning and swaying
  • Labyrinthitis: faintness, tinnitus, and hearing loss are common symptoms of this inner ear disorder culminating in bacterial infections and viruses that lead to labyrinth inflammation
  • Vestibular Neuritis: this infection of the inner ear or vestibulocochlear nerve impairment (VOR) can arise from systemic viral infections of the body, bringing about sudden dizziness, nausea or vomiting, and trouble walking.
  • Meniere’s Disease: viral infections, allergies, or autoimmune reactions may cause fluid build-up in the inner ear. Without treatment, hearing loss may become permanent.
  • Perilymphatic Fistula: a perforated eardrum, trauma, and ear blockage are the main cause of PLF, which result in fullness in the ear and intolerance to motion.

Is Vestibular Dysfunction Treatable?

While there is no cure for vestibular dysfunction, treatment is available depending on the cause of your balance disorder. For example, some patients may need antibiotics or antifungal treatments to treat any underlying ear infections. Others may require lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking or easing symptoms with diet changes and Brandt-Daroff exercises.

When medicine can’t manage symptoms, balance retraining therapy can help patients learn how to cope with dizzy spells. Your doctor may recommend gaze stabilization exercises (X1-X2 viewing) or a series of head and chest movements called canal repositioning maneuvers (Epley maneuver). When combined with vestibular rehabilitation, roll maneuvers help dislodge particles in your semicircular canals to alleviate symptoms.

Depending on the severity, vestibular disorders can affect your overall balance significantly, leaving you feeling vulnerable. Whether caused by traumatic head injuries, medication, bacterial or viral infection, these conditions can reduce your quality of life if left untreated. Email, or call Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehab at 570-208-2787 to alleviate and manage symptoms of vestibular dysfunction.