Vertigo: Understanding the Balance System

How balance is affected by vertigo

Vertigo is the sensation that you or your environment is spinning or moving. It is different from feeling dizzy in that it must always have a component of the illusion of movement and rotation to be true vertigo. If you feel as if you yourself are moving, it is a subjective vertigo. If you feel as if the things around you are moving, it is an objective vertigo. Vertigo has very few causes when compared to lightheadedness or dizziness.

Vertigo may be stem from a problem in the central nervous system or the brain. This is central vertigo. If the problem originates in the inner ear, it is peripheral vertigo. Vertigo is not a condition itself, but it is a symptom of another disease. It also is not contagious. Here are few common conditions that have vertigo as the main symptom.

Meniere’s disease

A triad of symptoms makes up Meniere’s disease, including tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vertigo, and hearing loss. You may also have congestion in one of your ears. People who have Meniere’s often have an abrupt onset of vertigo and hearing loss followed by a symptom-free period.

Labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis

These conditions have to do with inflammation of the inner ear. They have sudden onset vertigo and hearing loss, as well, possibly due to a viral or bacterial infection.

BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo)

The most common type of vertigo, BPPV is known for a brief feeling of movement lasting about 15 seconds to a few minutes. It is often initiated with sudden head movements or moving the head is a particular way, such as rolling over in bed.

The Balance System and Vertigo

In order to understand vertigo, we must get a clear understanding of what the balance system is. We often take our balance for granted. Walking across the room or across a gravel driveway is usually easy for most people. However, if you have impaired balance, even getting out of bed in the middle of the night can be dangerous and cause you to be exhausted. You may even have problems with concentration and memory due to your balance issues.

What exactly is balance? It is the ability to keep your body upright and centered over its base of support. If your balance system is working at its optimum, you will be able to see clearly while moving, identify where you are in your environment in relation to gravity, know what direction and speed you are moving in, and adjust your posture accordingly.

Balance occurs thanks to these complicated set of control systems:

  • Vision
  • Touch
  • The vestibular system (motion, equilibrium, spatial orientation)
  • Sensory input

If something like injury, certain drugs, disease, or the aging process affects any of these functions, balance can become impaired. Psycological factors can negatively impact balance, as well.

Sensory input

This system depends on information coming to the brain from the eyes, muscles and joints, and vestibular organs. These signals come to the brain as nerve impulses from particular nerve endings called sensory receptors.

The eyes

Rods and cones in the retina send signals to the brain. Rods are better for low light situations, while cones help with color vision and fine details.

Muscles and joints

Proprioceptive information from the skin, joints, and muscles are sensitive to stretching or pressure felt in the surrounding tissues. This happens when you stand and the front part of your feet lean forward or any movement of the legs, arms, or other body parts. This helps our brain to know where we are located in our environment. Sensory impulses in the neck and ankles are very important.

The vestibular system

Sensory information comes from the inner ear via the utricle, saccule, and three semicircular canals. The utricle and saccule detect gravity, while the semicircular canals detect rotational movement. There are three semicircular canals located at right angles to each other. When the head or body moves, the endolymph fluid contained in these canals lags behind and sends signals to the brain about what is happening.

The problem comes in when there is a conflict of sensory input. This can cause you to become disoriented. If the information coming from your eyes, muscles and joints, or vestibular organs sends information that does not match up in the brain, vertigo will ensue. You may have experienced this on a small scale if you have ever been sitting stationary in your car when the car next to you begins to move. It may feel as if you are moving when you are not. This is what happens in your brain if the input it receives is not in sync.

Getting Help for Vertigo

Now, we need to find out what is causing the sensory input from these sources not to be in sync with each other. One reason for this can be a misalignment in the bones of the upper cervical spine, especially the C1 and C2 vertebrae. If these bones have moved out of place due to an injury or accident, they can be putting the brainstem under stress. The brainstem is responsible for carrying sensory input to the brain. If it is not functioning properly and it sends the wrong signal to the brain, this can be the reason for the signals not matching up. It can also be the reason for vertigo.

Upper cervical chiropractors have been specially trained to find these small misalignments and correct them using a gentle method. Once communication is restored, many people see a great improvement in their vertigo. Some see it go away entirely.

Find An Upper Cervical Doctor in Your Areato schedule a consultation today.


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The content and materials provided in this web site are for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to supplement or comprise a medical diagnosis or other professional opinion, or to be used in lieu of a consultation with a physician or competent health care professional for medical diagnosis and/or treatment. All content and materials including research papers, case studies and testimonials summarizing patients' responses to care are intended for educational purposes only and do not imply a guarantee of benefit. Individual results may vary, depending upon several factors including age of the patient, severity of the condition, severity of the spinal injury, and duration of time the condition has been present.