There can be many reasons a person feels dizzy, but the inner ear is a very common source of dizziness for adults. We have all felt dizzy in our lives, and some of this comes from the vestibular system. When children spin themselves around and around, the vestibular system tells the brain what is happening, but if they keep spinning quickly the system gets overwhelmed and balance worsens, they stagger around and they feel dizzy when they stop.
How does the inner ear work?
The inner ear has two parts, the hearing centre called the cochlea, and the balance and movement centre called the vestibular system. The vestibular system is a movement sensor, it feels movement of the head in all three dimensions and sends signals to the brain about the direction, amount and speed of movement. It also feels the pull of gravity, and allows us to know what direction is up (even when our eyes are closed, like when swimming under water).
Each of your ears has five sensors in the vestibular system. Movement of the head is picked up by the sensors and the sensors send signals to the brain which are used to balance, to stay upright and move easily from one spot to another in space. The brain also sends out a feel of our movement (for example, we can feel when we lean over versus stand upright).
How does it go wrong?
If there is damage to the vestibular sensors, (in either or both ears), the signals that they send are changed. Those new signals are not identified correctly by the brain, and we feel movement that does not match what we are actually doing. This incorrect feel is dizziness. Dizziness can take many forms — lightheadedness, floating feeling, spinning, swaying inside the head, and many others. It may be accompanied by nausea or vomiting as well.
In short, if you have a vestibular problem, your “feel of your own movement” may be slightly off (or more than slightly) and that can cause dizziness, nausea, balance problems, and some very specific type of vision problems. But the good news is that you can recover, and often without having any specific help and if you need help, vestibular rehabilitation is available.
Check back soon for more info on the vestibular system, specific types of disorders and some rehab ideas to help with the dizziness.