Overview

Balance problems are conditions that make you feel unsteady or dizzy. If you are standing, sitting or lying down, you might feel as if you are moving, spinning or floating. If you are walking, you might suddenly feel as if you are tipping over or generally unsteady.

Many body systems — including your muscles, bones, joints, vision, the balance organ in the inner ear, nerves, heart and blood vessels — must work normally for you to have normal balance. When these systems aren't functioning well, you can experience balance problems.

Many medical conditions can cause balance problems. However, most balance problems result from issues in your balance end-organ in the inner ear (vestibular system).

Balance problems care at Mayo Clinic

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of balance problems include:

  • Sense of motion or spinning (vertigo)
  • Feeling of faintness (presyncope)
  • Loss of balance (disequilibrium)
  • Dizziness

Causes

Balance problems can be caused by several different conditions. The cause of balance problems is usually related to the specific sign or symptom.

Sense of motion or spinning (vertigo)

Vertigo can be associated with many conditions, including:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). BPPV occurs when calcium crystals in your inner ear — which help control your balance — are dislodged from their normal position and move elsewhere in the inner ear. BPPV is the most common cause of vertigo. You might experience a spinning sensation when turning in bed or tilting your head back to look up.
  • Meniere's disease. In addition to sudden and severe vertigo, Meniere's disease can cause fluctuating hearing loss and buzzing, ringing or a feeling of fullness in your ear. The cause of Meniere's disease isn't fully known. Meniere's disease is rare and typically develops in people who are between the ages of 20 and 60.
  • Migraine. Dizziness and sensitivity to motion (vestibular migraine) can occur due to migraine headache. Migraine is a common cause of dizziness.
  • Acoustic neuroma. This noncancerous (benign), slow-growing tumor develops on a nerve that affects your hearing and balance. You might experience dizziness or loss of balance, but the most common symptoms are hearing loss and ringing in your ear. Acoustic neuroma is a rare condition.
  • Vestibular neuritis. This inflammatory disorder, probably caused by a virus, can affect the nerves in the balance portion of your inner ear. Symptoms are often severe and persistent, and include nausea and difficulty walking. Symptoms can last several days and gradually improve on their own.
  • Ramsay Hunt syndrome. Also known as herpes zoster otitis, this condition occurs when a shingles infection affects the facial nerve near one of your ears. You might experience vertigo, ear pain and hearing loss.
  • Head injury. You might experience vertigo due to a concussion or other head injury.
  • Motion sickness. You might experience dizziness in boats, cars and airplanes, or on amusement park rides.
  • Persistent postural-perceptual dizziness. This disorder occurs frequently with other types of vertigo. Symptoms include unsteadiness or a sensation of motion in your head. Symptoms often worsen when you watch objects move, when you read, or when you are in a visually complex environment such as a shopping mall.

Feeling of faintness (presyncope)

Presyncope can be associated with:

  • Orthostatic hypotension (postural hypotension). Standing or sitting up too quickly can cause some people to experience a significant drop in their blood pressure, resulting in presyncope.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Abnormal heart rhythms (heart arrhythmia), narrowed or blocked blood vessels, a thickened heart muscle (hypertrophic cardiomyopathy), or a decrease in blood volume can reduce blood flow and cause presyncope.

Loss of balance (disequilibrium)

Losing your balance while walking, or feeling imbalanced, can result from:

  • Vestibular problems. Abnormalities in your inner ear can cause a sensation of a floating or heavy head, and unsteadiness in the dark.
  • Nerve damage to your legs (peripheral neuropathy). The damage can lead to difficulties with walking.
  • Joint, muscle or vision problems. Muscle weakness and unstable joints can contribute to your loss of balance. Difficulties with eyesight also can lead to disequilibrium.
  • Medications. Disequilibrium can be a side effect of medications.
  • Certain neurologic conditions. These include cervical spondylosis and Parkinson's disease.

Dizziness

A sense of dizziness or lightheadedness can result from:

  • Inner ear problems. Abnormalities of the vestibular system can lead to a sensation of floating or other false sensation of motion.
  • Psychiatric disorders. Depression (major depressive disorder), anxiety and other psychiatric disorders can cause dizziness.
  • Abnormally rapid breathing (hyperventilation). This condition often accompanies anxiety disorders and may cause lightheadedness.
  • Medications. Lightheadedness can be a side effect of medications.