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Vestibular Disorders

What is the Vestibular System?

The Vestibular System is a sensory system that significantly contributes to spatial orientation including movement and a sense of balance.

The term Vestibular comes from the Vestibule, which is the central part of the bony labyrinth of the inner ear.

The bony labyrinth is located in the petrous part of the temporal bone (which is the hardest bone in the human body) and houses the organs of hearing and balance which include the vestibule, the semicircular canals and the cochlea.

The Vestibule contains two Otoliths: the Utricle and the Saccule. These two otoliths work together to perceive linear acceleration (horizontal movement) and gravity (vertical movement).

The Semicircular canals include three canals: Superior, Posterior & Horizontal which perceive head rotation on three dimensional planes.

The Cochlea: the spiral part of the inner ear which perceives sound. Knowing which direction sound is coming from is very helpful in spatial orientation.

What is Balance?

Everyone would have heard of the traditional Five Senses which include SIGHT, HEARING, TASTE, SMELL and TOUCH. But what about the sense of BALANCE? You might be able to imagine life without the ability to see or taste, but could you imagine what life would be like if you had no sense of balance? You wouldn’t be able to sit or stand upright, because you would have no concept of “up” or “down”. You wouldn’t be able to move your head or body in any controllable way, because you would have no sense of being “here” to be able to move “there”. Without a sense of balance the universal force of gravity, which keeps you planted to this earth,
would have no meaning. It would be fair to say that without any sense of balance, life would be unimaginably disabling.

So how do we perceive balance?

Balance is the result of a virtually seamless interaction between our vestibular system, our eyes (sight), our proprioception (touch) and our brain.


What is a Vestibular Disorder?

A Vestibular Disorder is one where temporary or permanent damage to the vestibular system results in dysfunction. This damage can be caused by many things. A blow to the head or ear; excess fluid in the inner ear; the displacement of inner ear crystals; malformation of the inner ear structure; disease or infection; toxic chemicals; an immunological response; a membrane tear; or even a tumorous growth.

Due to the complexity of the Vestibular System there are many different types of Vestibular disorders. As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.


Vestibular Disorders: An Overview

Vestibular disorders are a major cause of feeling dizzy & off balance – a common health complaint.

Individuals talk of experiencing sensations such as spinning, light headedness, giddiness, dizzy spells,unsteadiness & loss of balance.

The underlying causes of these symptoms are notoriously difficult to diagnose. There may be complications from allergies, autoimmune disorders, ageing etc. A definite diagnosis takes time. Episodes can come quickly, last shorter long periods, vanish and reoccur.

Vertigo is a special type of dizziness – where you feel the world is spinning around you- much like getting off a merry-go-round & trying to stand upright. Vertigo arises from a disturbance in either the balance sensory organs of the inner ear or parts of the brain and sensory nerve pathways.

The Vestibular System together with vision, hearing and muscle feedback helps control your sense of balance and enables human movement. Together with the cochlea it forms the inner ear. If the semi circular canals or otolithorgans of the Vestibular system are damaged, a person will have difficulty with balance, equilibrium and orientation to their surroundings. Feelings of nausea, disorientation, fullness of the ear and loss of hearing can accompany vertigo.

Inner ear Vestibular symptoms are distressing for individuals, life changing and often chronic in nature.

Individuals are usually desperate for information & help. This is the role of Whirled Foundation. We provide support,information and assistance. At the same time we seek to raise community & health professional awareness of what can be done to assist individuals with a vestibular disorder.


Vestibular disorders:

There are a great number of causes of dizziness and loss of balance, which require expert diagnosis and treatment.

The major Vestibular disorders are:

There are a number of other less common Vestibular disorders, all of which require expert medical diagnosis.

Diagnosis and treatment.

Individuals experiencing dizziness and imbalance symptoms should consult their medical practitioner as soon as possible. Keeping a patient time log of symptoms is a good idea. Key treating Medical Specialists are Neurologists, ENT’s, Neurotologists, Vestibular Physiotherapists and Audiologists. Specialist tests help determine the underlying causes.

Treatments may include medication, head repositioning maneouvers, surgery, Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy, dietary changes especially low salt diets, reduction of stress etc. Some people report alternative therapies are of assistance.

What are the numbers?

Dizziness and imbalance are much more common in the community than generally realised. It is conservately estimated 5% of the population will experience a vestibular disorder at some stage. That is equal to one million Australians.

What about Research?

Research into identifying and understanding the underlying causes and finding a cure continues worldwide, but remains an elusive goal. Whirled Foundation encourages continuing research.

How do we maintain our Balance and stay upright?

To understand Vestibular Disorders you must first understand Balance and the Vestibular System.

Join Us

Whirled Foundation membership has great benefits and puts you in touch with others living with vestibular disorders around Australia and the world.

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