The anatomy of the ear

Dizziness and similar complications happen because of things that happen in your inner ear. You know if your inner ear is causing dizziness because when you have it, moving your head in any way causes immediate vertigo – the sensation that your physical surroundings are spinning.
Dizziness and similar complications happen because of things that happen in your inner ear. You know if your inner ear is causing dizziness because when you have it, moving your head in any way causes immediate vertigo – the sensation that your physical surroundings are spinning.

If you often get dizzy for what seems like no reason, it’s likely that your inner ear is the source. You might be experiencing dizziness or balance issues as a result of an illness or simply because you need to clean your ears.

Dizziness and similar complications happen because of things that happen in your inner ear. This part of your ear has three different canals that each sense a different kind of movement–side to side, up and down, and turning and tilting. Each canal is full of fluid that holds floating membranes made of little cells whose purpose is to send messages to your brain. 

Along with the things that you see and feel, this transmitted information guides you as you make your way through physical landscapes.

If something interferes with these messages, you might feel like your surroundings are spinning, nauseated, or dizzy. It’s possible to physically fall due to inner ear problems. There are a handful of issues that can affect your inner ear and throw you off-balance.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is a condition of the inner ear. When you have it, moving your head in any way causes immediate vertigo – the sensation that your physical surroundings are spinning. BPPV doesn’t indicate any serious underlying conditions, and it typically goes away on its own within a month or two. Around half of people older than 65 get BPPV at some point.

Symptoms

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo ranges from mild to serious and typically fades after a few minutes. 

You might have symptoms such as:

  • Feeling dizzy
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Inability to balance
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

When you first experience BPPV, it can be concerning and even scary. The imbalance can also cause falls, which can result in serious injuries like bone fractures.

Causes

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo happens when otoconia, or calcium carbonate crystal, make their way into and get stuck in one of your ear canals. These otoconia are a part of a different structure that resides right next to the canal. 

With infection, injury, or age, the otoconia can break loose and incorrectly stimulate the canals. Essentially, your brain is told that there is a shift in your surroundings even when there’s not. 

You might experience BPPV when you:

  • Sit up or roll over in bed
  • Tilt your head forward and look down
  • Tilt your head back and look up

Typically, only one ear is affected by BPPV at a time, although it is possible for both ears to have this issue simultaneously.

Diagnosis

There’s a clear, simple path to diagnosis if you have benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. When you visit your healthcare provider, they will ask you questions about your medical history and perform a physical exam. 

Treatment

The most common treatment for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is called particle repositioning. It takes around 15 minutes and consists of head and body movements that move the otoconia out of your inner ear canals and back into their rightful place. One instance of particle repositioning successfully cures 80% to 90% of BPPV cases.

Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis

Labyrinthitis, sometimes called vestibular neuritis, is an infection of the inner ear that can throw off your balance.

Symptoms

Side effects of labyrinthitis can come and go suddenly, and they may vary in intensity throughout the day. The typical symptoms of vestibular neuritis include:

  • The feeling that everything around you is spinning or that you’re dizzy
  • Having difficulty standing upright or walking in a straight line because your balance is off
  • Feeling unwell
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Tinnitus, or a ringing in your ears

These symptoms usually fade away after a few days, except for feelings of being off-balance. It can take six weeks or longer to feel steady on your feet again.

Treatment

Labyrinthitis usually resolves itself after a few weeks, but there are ways to ease your symptoms. Try the following if you need relief:

  • Lay down in a dark room.
  • Stay hydrated if you throw up. Try taking frequent, small sips.
  • Steer clear of loud noises and bright lights.
  • Stay well-rested.
  • Take walks outside as often as you can. Bring someone along if you need help.
  • Concentrate on a fixed object when you’re out and about. Avoid looking around at your surroundings.

If possible, avoid driving, biking, and using heavy machinery. Don’t drink alcohol either, as it can worsen side effects of vestibular neuritis.

Earwax

It’s normal to have earwax in your ears, but it’s possible to have too much. If it accumulates, it can clog your ear and result in hearing and balance issues. Your risk of earwax buildup increases as you age. Ask your healthcare provider about irrigation or special drops to help dislodge built-up earwax.

Meniere’s disease

It’s possible for fluid to build up in your inner ear, which causes vertigo, ringing in your ear, or difficulty hearing; this is called Meniere’s disease. The cause of Meniere’s disease is unknown, but it could have something to do with poor circulation, allergies, infections, or genetics. There is no cure for this condition, but there are effective treatments to control symptoms.

QUESTION

What is vertigo? See Answer

Acoustic neuroma

Also called vestibular schwannoma, acoustic neuroma is when you have a benign tumor that affects your balance, causes vertigo, makes your ears ring, and can affect your hearing. Treatment options include removing the tumor, undergoing radiation therapy, or waiting to see how you feel before taking action.

Living with balance issues

Some balance problems caused by your inner ear can last for months or even years. Stay in touch with your healthcare provider to ensure that you are able to lead your life as normal and to ensure that you don’t have a more serious underlying condition.

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Medically Reviewed on 6/27/2022
References
Sources:

Cleveland Clinic: "Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)."

Keck Medicine USC: "Feeling Off-Balance? The Problem Might Be in Your Ears."

National Health Service: "Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis."