November 1, 2014

The Inner Ear and Your Balance

By: Aftab H. Patni, M.D.

If you’ve ever wondered why you may have balance problems, your inner ear may be to blame. There are multiple ways to treat balance problems and disorders and many of them involve the inner ear. The below article explains how your inner ear works with other parts of your body to keep you balanced and details all the things you never knew you wanted to know about your inner ear.

The Inner Workings of Balance

Did you know fluid located in the inner ear moves around according to gravity? Inside the inner ear are tiny, responsive hair cells able to tell which way the fluid is moving over them. Similar to acting like many switches, they combine movement information to transport signals down the auditory nerve to the brain. The brain receives these signals and creates several things including: a detailed idea of your direction upward, your overall body movement, your head position and how to focus your eyes. Signals from your other senses combine with the signals from the hair cells to transport more signals to your muscles which in turn assists to make up coordination and balance. It’s a complex network designed to keep you balanced in your day-to-day life.

Parts and Functions of the Inner Ear

The labyrinth, or inner ear, is a complex structure that is made up of different parts. The job of the labyrinth is to carry out tasks in order to regulate balance. The labyrinth is composed of the saccule, utricle, cochlea and three semicircular canals which sit at different angles in the inner ear. Endolymph, a fluid contained in the three ear, runs over the small hairs mentioned above as you move. This assists the brain with creating an impression of the head’s changing positions as you move. Similar to a gyroscope, this also helps recognize how the head is turned, angled and tilted.

The cochlea is the organ that deals with hearing. The cochlea is connected to all the parts of the inner ear and shares endolymph fluid with them.

Using nerve signals, the brain is able to construct a mental picture of your body’s positioning. The brain then submits the signals out to the remainder of the body, which allows proper balancing whether you’re walking down the street or standing on a curb.

Sound Localization

The ability to be able to tell the exact direction sounds are coming from in relation to you is called sound localization. Our ears work with one another and our head in order to place the direction of a sound. When sound comes from one side or the other, the head creates a delay in the sound waves coming to the farther away ear. This means one ear will receive the sound slightly before the other. The brain quickly calculates the delay and submits nerve signals to the neck muscles to move the head to the correct direction. This results in the head turning towards the source of the sound, similar to a reflexive response.

Sound localization contains many factors. Loudness, movement, distance, echo and differing sound frequencies all play in a role in allowing us to localize sound. The better hearing level you have, the easier it is to make sense of and locate sounds. Our ability to locate sounds can be affected by hearing loss due to muffled sound waves or certain sound pitches being missed.

People with hearing loss tend to have a hard time understanding conversations in busy places. Sometimes people with hearing loss can hear the words but are unable to find where the sound is coming from.

If you would like to learn more about the inner ear, sound localization or any other subject relating to balance and dizziness, be sure to contact our office so we may assist you in any way possible. Check out the Hearing and Balance Center for a list of all the services we offer and the ways we can help you.