Millions of Americans have disorders of balance they describe as dizziness. What can be difficult for both a patient and his or her doctor is that dizziness is what is called "a subjective term." (That means a word like dizziness can be used by people to describe different sensations they are experiencing, but it is hard for anyone but the person experiencing the symptoms to understand or measure the nature or severity of the sensations.) Another difficulty is that people tend to use different terms to describe the same kind of problem. "Balance problems," "dizziness," "imbalance," and "disorders of balance" are all used interchangeably.
What is dizziness?
For some people, dizziness is a feeling of unsteadiness or a spinning sensation. Others may experience extreme balance disorders that affect many aspects of their lives. Dizziness may be a fleeting sensation or the prolonged and intense symptom of a wide range of health problems that can affect a person's independence, ability to work, and quality of life. Experts believe that more than 40 percent of Americans will experience dizziness that is serious enough to go to a doctor. Even dizziness that seems minor, if undiagnosed, may be a signal of underlying disorders.
Balance problems are among the most common reasons that older adults seek help from a doctor. Many people are surprised to learn that the source of their imbalance may be in their inner ears. Balance (or vestibular) problems are reported in about 9 percent of the population who are 65 years of age or older. Fall-related injuries such as breaking (or fracturing) a hip are a leading cause of death and disability in older individuals. Many of these hip fractures are related to balance disorders. Although this fact sheet is about adults, children who complain about or describe balance problems should be seen by a doctor.
Balance disorders may also lead to other problems including fatigue, difficulty walking, or disinterest in everyday and leisure activities. If you or your child, parent, friend, or co-worker has a balance problem--take it seriously. Talk to the doctor about what happens when you feel dizzy or lose your balance. Be as careful as possible to describe your experience of dizziness specifically.
Describe your symptoms for your doctor
Ask yourself the following questions. If you answer "yes" to any of these questions, you should discuss the symptom with your doctor.
- Do I feel unsteady?
- Do I feel as if the room is "spinning" around me?
- Do I feel as if I'm moving when I know I'm standing or sitting still?
- Do I lose my balance and fall?
- Do I feel as if I'm falling?
- Do I feel as if I might faint? (sometimes people call this "lightheaded")
- Does my vision become blurred?
- Do I ever feel disoriented? (lose my sense of time, place, identity)
- What should I do?
Balance disorders are serious. The most important thing you can do if you think you have a balance disorder is to see a doctor. Your doctor may refer you to an otolaryngologist, the doctor who specializes in the ear, nose, and throat. An otolaryngologist will try to find out why you have balance problems and may discuss treatment options.
To schedule an appointment with the Ear, Nose, and Throat Institute, please call 770.740.1860.
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