Balance Problems

Basic Facts

What are Balance Problems?

Balance is commonly used to describe stability and steadiness when a person is standing or sitting. Good balance means one can control and maintain their body’s position comfortably while performing normal activities such as standing, walking, and climbing stairs.

There are a range of conditions that cause “balance problems” or “balance disorders.” Whatever the cause, you will have the feeling that you’re unsteady, or that you might fall, or that your sense of up and down isn’t right.

New balance problems can have many causes, from medication side effects to heart problems. If you have new, strong, or persistent feelings of losing your balance, lightheadedness, faintness, dizziness, or you feel shaky, weak, unstable, or just generally physically insecure, you should see your healthcare provider. Those feelings may be related to one or several reversible conditions.

To have good balance, many different parts of your body must work together:

  • your vision
  • the balance center in your inner ear 
  • the nerves in your skin, muscles, limbs, joints, and feet that tell your senses where your body is in space and communicate that information to your brain
  • your brain’s balance center
  • your brain for receiving, processing, interpreting, and coordinating the information it receives and sending the right messages out to your body
  • your muscles and nerves (they have to be strong and fast enough to respond to the brain’s messages)

Issues in any or several of these systems can produce balance problems.

Why Balance is Important

Your feelings of dizziness may last only a few seconds or go on for days, weeks, or even longer. Whatever the cause or length of time, you will find it hard to maintain an upright position while the feeling lasts. You may not be able to carry out simple daily activities such as bathing, dressing, cooking, eating, or getting around your home. 

Your chance of having a problem with your balance may get worse as the years go by. In fact, balance disorders are among the most common reasons that people over the age of 65 see their healthcare providers. It is understandable to feel concerned if you can no longer fully trust your sense of balance.

Loss of balance also raises the risk of falls.  This is a serious and even life-threatening complication. Falls are the leading cause of injuries—including fatal injuries—for people older than 65.

Balance disorders are serious because of the risk of falls.  But occasionally balance problems may warn of another health condition, such as a heart disorder, or a problem in the brain or nervous system. Because of all the possible causes and overlapping symptoms, balance problems can be quite tricky to diagnose. For these reasons, it is important to see a healthcare provider so that the source of your balance problem can be properly and quickly identified. When treatments are needed, they are usually simple and effective.   

The Most Common Types of Balance Problems

Your feelings of poor balance may last only a few seconds when you stand up or you may feel them all the time. You may feel as though you might fall or you want to hold onto something. These feelings may make you feel less secure moving around your home and the world outside. If your balance problems are serious, you may not be able to carry out simple daily activities such as bathing, dressing, cooking, eating, or getting around your home. 

Your chance of having a problem with your balance may get worse as the years go by. In fact, balance disorders are among the most common reasons that people over the age of 65 see their healthcare providers. It is understandable to feel concerned if you can no longer fully trust your sense of balance.

Loss of balance also raises the risk of falls. This is a serious and even life-threatening complication. Falls are the leading cause of injuries—including fatal injuries—for people older than 65, and especially those over age 80.

Balance disorders are serious because of the risk of falls and because the fear of falling often causes people to do less physically and socially. Restrictions in your activities, even for what seems like a good reason, can have the unwelcome side effects of making your life less enjoyable and fulfilling while also increasing your risk of weakness and falls. This is another good reason to get help with your balance problems.

Because balance problems are sometimes warning signs of another health condition, such as a heart disorder or a problem in the brain or nervous system, you should see your healthcare provider if you develop a new balance problem or have sudden worsening of your balance. Because an older person may have several issues that contribute to their balance problems, the cause of your imbalance can be quite tricky to diagnose. For these reasons, it is important to tell your healthcare provider when and how the problem started, what new medications you are taking, and whether you have any other new symptoms or challenges. This will help them diagnose and treat your balance problem.   

How Common are Balance Problems?

Nearly 8 million adults of all ages in the United States report balance disorders each year. About 25% of older adults in the community report difficulty with balance or require the assistance of another person or special equipment to walk. The numbers increase significantly after age 75. All in all, almost 40% of older adults are affected by balance problems.

In adults over age 65, balance problems are linked to falls. One-third of adults in this age group and over half of people over the age of 75 years fall each year. Men and women are affected about equally.

 

Last Updated December 2020