First, an inner- ear anatomy lesson: Although your outer ear and middle ear are all about hearing, your inner ear is not only involved with hearing but also with your sense of balance. Liquid in bony tubes called semicircular canals teams up with tiny calcium crystals in bony vestibules to send signals to your brain. That's what keeps you steady on your feet as you move your head.
Temporary motion sickness and dizziness can happen to young and old alike if the liquid sloshes around during a bumpy ride or a spin on the dance floor. This kind of balance problem is not an ailment, and the symptoms disappear as soon as the liquid settles down. In fact, trained dancers keep the liquid level by using the technique of "spotting, " which involves a few elements, including keeping their gaze on a particular spot. That's why they can twirl around in multiple pirouettes without falling down or feeling nauseated.
Another cause of wooziness, though, is a disorder called "ear rock" that most often strikes people over 50. Head trauma and viral infections can also bring this on at any age. The medical term is quite a mouthful: bipolar paroxysmal positional vertigo. All it means, however, is that some of those little crystals have broken loose so they're rattling around in the wrong places in your ear and sending confusing messages to your gray matter.
The reason this can happen as the years go by is that the bony structures in your ear degenerate to some degree. You can't do anything about that but, happily, therapy for ear rock is available. Your symptoms could go away on their own if the crystals spontaneously return to where they belong but if not, don't suffer in silence. Ear rock puts you at risk for falls that might cause injuries. Besides, feeling sick to your stomach most of the time is guaranteed to cramp your style!
When you go to the doctor, he or she will first make a diagnosis and then refer you to a physical therapist who will do one or more maneuvers aimed at coaxing the rocks back into place. There are also some exercises you can do at home. Together these treatments are effective for almost all patients over a period of two or three months. In the meantime, you'll no doubt be offered medication to quell the nausea. For the record, patients who say no to this option at first often give in soon enough and are very glad they did! You would also do well to prop your head up on a couple of pillows at night and sleep on your back. Some people invest in recliners and keep themselves partially upright. Whatever you do, a rule of thumb is that the next morning you should sit up slowly and wait a minute before standing.
In all probability, these non-invasive strategies will make your lightheadedness a thing of the past fairly quickly. In rare cases, though – an estimated 5% -- ear rock doesn't respond well enough to the repositioning therapies. Surgery to plug the posterior semicircular canal may be the best choice. For the vast majority of patients, the operation is successful and the recovery period very short.
One way or another, you stand an excellent chance of keeping those pesky rocks in your head from compromising your quality of life. Before long you'll be feeling like yourself again, and even if you have some recurrences down the road, you already know what to do to get better as quickly as possible. Here's to a life that is quite literally in balance from now on!
Sondra Forsyth, a National Magazine Award winner, writes for major magazines and is the author or co-author of eleven books. She was Executive Editor at Ladies’ Home Journal, Features Editor at Cosmopolitan, and Articles Editor at Bride’s. A former ballerina, she is the Artistic Director of Ballet Ambassadors, an arts-in-education company in New York City.