BY GILLIAN BAKKER
When we think of our ears we may assume that they are only used for our sense of hearing, but they actually hold another important sensory organ, one that majorly contributes to our sense of balance.
Our brain uses many different systems to formulate our sense of balance. By combining the information received from different parts of the body, our brain can formulate an understanding of where our body is positioned in relation to the world around us. Information is collected from what our eyes can see as well as the sensations that our muscles and joints in our legs can feel. The vestibular system, located in our inner ear, is another important piece to this puzzle. The vestibular system encompasses 3 semi-circular canals that contain fluid that give us our sense of movement, and two otolith organs which hold small ‘stones’ which give us our sense of gravity.
Within the inner ear the vestibular system is connected to the hearing organ, known as the cochlear. These two systems share the same nerve pathway to the brain, known as the vestibulocochlear nerve. This close relationship between the vestibular and hearing organs can mean that if there is an issue or an ailment within the inner ear, symptoms may be felt in our sense of hearing, our sense of balance, or both.
Balance issues can manifest in many different ways. The most common is brief vertigo, the sensation of the world spinning around you, lasting a few seconds. One of the most common causes of brief vertigo is when the ‘stones’ in the vestibular organ have come loose and are positioned in the wrong part of the semi-circular canals. This is known as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), and does not commonly manifest in any changes to hearing. There are simple exercise that can be performed at home to treat BPPV, including the Epley manoeuvre. This exercise involves lying down and turning the head in prescribed movements to relocate the loose ‘stones’ into their correct position within the semi-circular canals.
On the other end of the spectrum, prolonged vertigo lasting multiple days can be a symptom of many different inner ear ailments, such as Meniere’s disease or Labyrinthitis, these disorders in particular have been known to cause changes to hearing.
Given this close association, if a patient reports disequilibrium or vertigo, a hearing test can provide valuable information as to the likely cause and appropriate onward referrals and treatment strategies. For example, if deemed necessary, symptoms of prolonged vertigo may be judged to require further assessment by an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist.
If you are experiencing symptoms of vertigo and changes to hearing, a hearing test is the first step to finding answers. Contact us to arrange a hearing test.