What are the symptoms of a vestibular disorder?
The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that help control balance and eye movements. If the system is damaged by disease, aging, or injury, vestibular disorders can result, and are often associated with one or more of these symptoms, among others.
Summary of Vestibular Symptoms
- Dizziness: A sensation of lightheadedness, faintness, or unsteadiness.
- Imbalance: Unsteadiness or loss of equilibrium that is often accompanied by spatial disorientation.
- Vertigo: A rotational, spinning component, and is the perception of movement, either of the self or surrounding objects.
- Brain fog: When the brain is dedicating a great deal of energy to maintain equilibrium and stay steady, activities such as recalling details or short-term memory may become more difficult, and thinking might seem “slow”.
- Tinnitus: Abnormal noise perceived in one or both ears or in the head. May be intermittent or continuous and can be experienced as a ringing, hissing, whistling, buzzing, or clicking sound and can vary in pitch from a low roar to a high squeal.
- Hearing loss: Reduction in the ability to hear sounds is a common symptom of many vestibular disorders. When VeDA conducted a patient poll, over two thirds reported that they had hearing loss in one or both ears.
- Vision impairment: The link between the vestibular system and vision, vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR), is described in detail with information on evaluation, treatment, coping strategies, and potential solutions for vision correction, including glasses and contact lenses.
- Nausea: The feeling of being nauseated.
- Cognitive changes: Difficulty thinking, paying attention/concentrating, recalling basic facts (such as your own phone number), short-term memory loss, etc.
- Psychological changes: Due to the unpredictable nature of symptoms and the chronic nature of most disorders, vestibular patients tend to suffer from anxiety and/or depression.
- Motion sickness: Symptoms appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the visual system and the vestibular system in the inner ears.
The type and severity of vestibular symptoms can vary considerably, and they be frightening and difficult to describe. People affected by vestibular disorders may be perceived as inattentive, lazy, overly anxious, or seeking attention. Functioning at work or school, performing routine daily tasks, or just getting out of bed in the morning may be difficult.
Symptoms may be difficult to describe, which complicates the diagnostic process. If you are unsure if you have a vestibular problem, reading this explanation of symptoms may help you. You may want to print this page and circle or highlight the descriptions that fit your symptoms, then bring it to your doctor. You may also want to download the Dizziness Symptom Profile developed by Vanderbilt University, fill it out and bring it to your doctor.
Vestibular Symptom Categories
Vertigo and dizziness
- Spinning or whirling sensation; a feeling the person or world moving when it is not (vertigo)
- Symptoms can be present while sitting still, in specific positions, or with movement
- Lightheaded, floating, or rocking sensation (dizziness)
- Sensation of being heavily weighted or pulled in one direction
Balance and spatial orientation
- Imbalance, stumbling, difficulty walking straight or when turning
- Clumsiness or difficulty with coordination
- Difficulty maintaining straight posture; head may be tilted to the side
- Tendency to look downward to confirm the location of the ground
- Tendency to touch or hold onto something when standing, or to touch or hold the head while seated
- Sensitivity to changes in walking surfaces or footwear
- Difficulty walking in the dark
- Muscle and joint pain (due to difficulty balancing)
- Trouble focusing or tracking objects with the eyes; objects or words on a page seem to jump, bounce, float, or blur or may appear doubled
- Discomfort from busy visual environments such as traffic, crowds, stores, and patterns
- Sensitivity to light, glare, and moving or flickering lights; fluorescent lights may be especially troublesome
- Sensitivity to certain types of computer monitors and digital televisions
- Tendency to focus on nearby objects; increased discomfort when focusing at a distance
- Increased night blindness; difficulty walking in the dark
- Poor depth perception
Read more about vision challenges with vestibular disorders.
- Hearing loss; distorted or fluctuating hearing
- Tinnitus (ringing, roaring, buzzing, whooshing, or other noises in the ear)
- Sensitivity to loud noises or environments
- Sudden loud sounds may increase symptoms of vertigo, dizziness, or imbalance
- Difficulty concentrating and paying attention; easily distracted
- Forgetfulness and short-term memory lapses
- Confusion, disorientation, difficulty comprehending directions or instructions
- Difficulty understanding conversations, especially when there is background noise or movement
- Mental and/or physical fatigue out of proportion to activity
Read more about the cognitive impacts of vestibular disorders.
- Loss of self-reliance, self-confidence, self-esteem
- Anxiety, panic, social isolation
Read more about the emotional impacts of vestibular disorders.
- Nausea or vomiting
- “Hangover” or “seasick” feeling in the head
- Motion sickness
- Sensation of fullness in the ears
- Ear pain
- Slurred speech
An inner ear disorder may be present even when there are no obvious or severe symptoms. It is important to note that most of these individual symptoms can also be caused by other unrelated conditions and should be discussed with a health professional.