Vestibular hypofunction is a type of balance disorder that involves part of the balance system not working properly. The balance system (known as the vestibular system) is housed in the inner ear. Vestibular hypofunction can be unilateral which means it occurs on one side or bilateral hypofunction meaning it is present on both sides – or in both ears. This balance disorder can be caused by several factors and is also incurable. There are, however, effective ways symptoms are managed and treated.
Understanding the Vestibular System
The vestibular system is in the inner ear and is the sensory system that is responsible for maintaining balance. Through a process of sending signals and sensory information from the inner ear to the brain, we are able to maintain balance which allows us to move through space safely (and not fall over). The vestibular system consists of three semicircular canals and the otolith organs. These components along with sensory cells that act as receptors provide information to the brain about movement and position. Each semicircular canal is positioned differently to detect and communicate specific movements:
- First canal: senses up and down motions
- Second canal: senses side-to-side movements
- Third canal: senses tilting movements
These canals are filled with fluid and tiny sensory cells that become activated by movements. This activity sends messages via the vestibulocochlear nerve, about head position and movements. The otolith organs send the brain signals about the body’s position – standing up or sitting down, forward or backward movements. These organs contain small crystals in them which move in response to movement and this activates the sensory cells in the ear.
Vestibular Hypofunction: Causes & Symptoms
The vestibular system can experience issues that then impact balance. Vestibular hypofunction can be caused by several factors including the following:
- Vestibular Neuritis: the vestibular nerve is used to send information about motion and balance to the brain. Vestibular neuritis occurs when the nerve experiences inflammation which can be caused by a viral infection.
- Labyrinthitis: this type of infection occurs in the inner ear (in the vestibular labyrinth), causing inflammation. Labyrinthitis is usually caused by an upper respiratory infection like the flu.
- Inner ear disorders: there are different types of inner ear disorders including meniere’s disease. The cause of this disorder is unknown but it involves an accumulation of fluid in the inner ear which produces inflammation. Experts suggest that this can be caused by viral infections, constricted blood vessels, or autoimmune conditions.
- Medications: there are different types of medications that can contribute to vestibular hypofunction. This includes chemotherapy medications as well as antibiotics.
Other causes of vestibular hypofunction include: head injuries, blood clots, tumors, autoimmune disorders. Vestibular hypofunction disrupts communication to the brain about balance which can produce the following symptoms:
- Dizziness, vertigo
- Nausea, motion sickness
- Balance issues, unsteadiness
- Struggling to walk, stumbling
- Blurred vision
These symptoms which can be intermittent or longer lasting, can impact mobility and wellness. If these symptoms sound familiar, it is important to be assessed by your healthcare provider.
Diagnosing vestibular hypofunction can include a series of tests. You may be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (an ENT or otolaryngologist) for comprehensive testing. This can include: hearing and vision tests, blood tests, head and brain imaging tests, as well as balance tests. There are a few treatment options including:
- Treating underlying causes: if the underlying cause is a viral, respiratory, or ear infection; you may be prescribed antibiotics or other medications to treat these underlying issues.
- Vestibular rehabilitation: also known as balance retraining therapy, this form of rehabilitation helps you perform movements without triggering symptoms like dizziness. Facilitated by a rehabilitation specialist, this involves learning how to make adjustments for everyday movements like driving, walking ,exercising, going up and down stairs etc.
- Lifestyle changes: this includes increasing exercise and making dietary changes which can alleviate symptoms. Also, quitting smoking and avoiding nicotine as well as other substances that exacerbate symptoms may also be recommended.
- Canalith repositioning: this involves a specialist facilitating certain head movements to reposition particles in the vestibular system’s semicircular canals so that they don’t trigger symptoms.
These interventions can alleviate symptoms and help people effectively manage vestibular hypofunction. Contact us today to learn more about this balance disorder and how you can seek treatment.