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Hearing management

10 December 2018

Can hearing loss influence your balance?

Your ears play an important role in maintaining your sense of balance. But how exactly is your balance affected when you suffer from hearing loss?

Hearing loss is a condition that greatly affects a person’s quality of life. It can happen suddenly, but it can also happen gradually, as the small hairs in your ear get damaged over time.

Your ears and balance

The ear is a vital organ — not only does it process sound waves, but it also serves an important purpose in the vestibular system, a combination of the visual system and the orientation of the body that helps it maintain its balance. When any part of this complex system is compromised, it can lead to balance disorders.

A structure in the inner ear, aptly named the labyrinth because it looks like an intricate maze, is largely responsible for the body’s sense of balance and orientation. The labyrinth is made up of bone and tissue and is extremely sensitive and delicate. Part of the labyrinth is the semi-circular canals and otolithic organs, which are in charge of balance, and the cochlea, which controls hearing.

This system makes your body aware of gravity and helps you to keep upright and see objects clearly (this is why your visual system also plays a role in balance).

Is your balance affected when you suffer from hearing loss?

While hearing loss in itself is not directly responsible for the loss of balance, it really depends on what part of the ear is damaged and what type of hearing loss you’re experiencing.

As soon as the inner part of your ear can no longer control your sense of balance, the rest of the system works overtime to help — this means that you rely more on information from the eyes and joints, which can now cause dizziness, headaches and body aches.

You may experience hearing loss together with balance impairment if the vestibular system is affected and there is a bigger underlying condition that might be responsible for hearing loss and a balance disorder.

So while hearing loss won’t necessarily affect your sense of balance immediately, it should be a cause of concern if you do experience hearing loss along with a loss of balance.

How are balancing disorders caused?

There are many factors that may cause impaired balance. These include:

  • A head injury or any injury that causes trauma to the inner ear
  • An inner ear infection which may temporarily affect the labyrinth
  • An eye muscle imbalance
  • Low blood pressure

Labyrinthitis — a balance-impairing condition

A specific inner ear infection causing inflammation to the labyrinth affects the balance directly and can cause hearing loss. This happens when one of the nerves responsible for sending signals to the brain to maintain balance becomes inflamed. 

This condition will also cause a sudden loss of hearing in the high-frequency range in your one ear. You will experience dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and difficulty maintaining your balance.

It’s important to seek medical help to determine the cause, which could be:

  • A viral infection of the inner ear
  • A bacterial infection of the inner ear
  • A respiratory infection such as bronchitis

If an ear infection is left untreated, it could possibly affect hearing later in life as an ear infection can become chronic and cause conductive hearing loss (hearing loss caused by inability to conduct sound from the external through to the inner ear), according to the Hearing and Balance Center in Charlotte, USA. 

When to seek help immediately

If you already suffer from hearing loss and experience balance impairment too, it’s important to visit your doctor or hearing specialist as soon as possible to determine the underlying cause, as it might not have anything to do with your inner ears. Your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

If you experience any of these symptoms, you should get help, as it could signal a serious underlying condition such as a stroke:

  • Fainting
  • Convulsions
  • Slurred speech
  • Blurred or double vision

Avoid ear infections that can cause balance impairment by taking proper care of hearing aids to keep them clean, keeping your immune system strong and talking to your doctor as soon as you experience any unusual symptoms. 

Image credit: iStock

 

Ask the Expert

Hearing Expert

Minette Lister graduated with a Bachelor of Communication Pathology (Audiology) from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Westville in 2015. Thereafter, she completed her compulsory year of community service at Phoenix Assessment and Therapy Centre in Durban. In 2017, Minette started working for Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. She is passionate about working with children and adults to diagnose and manage hearing loss using state of the art technology. Minette offers hearing screening programmes for newborn and high-risk babies, as well as school-aged children, in order to decrease the incidence of late or unidentified hearing loss.

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