by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
A man wrote:
I hope you can help me It all started on March 11. I got to work and started walking to the job and got dizzy and light headed. During the next 3 hours, I felt worse and worse. I got sick to my stomach. I called my wife to come and take me to the hospital. As we were going to hospital my chest, hands and feet felt numb. At the hospital I told them my chest hurts, my hands and feet feel numb, and I’m spinning. I was in the hospital 10 days.
After I got out, they sent me to an ENT doctor because I had lost the hearing in one ear. He put me on Prednisone and some other drugs. My hearing came back quite fast. However, since this happened, I need to use a walker because I am dizzy. My wife drives me around, and just the motion of the car, and seeing cars whiz by makes me dizzy.
I am just 54. They have done an MRI and found nothing. They say only my left ear was involved. The neurologist said today that a small blood vessel going to my ear could have caused a small stroke. Of all of the stories that I’ve read on the Internet, no one talks about numbness. Furthermore, I can’t believe that hearing plays that much of a role in having to use a walker.
That’s quite an experience you have gone through. I agree with you that numbness is not a part of “ear problems.” Typically, numbness is the result of a lack of blood flow to the affected parts of your body. Hence the sensor nerves there (pain, heat/cold, pressure, etc) temporarily cannot send their messages to your brain. Thus you have the numb feeling (or rather lack of feeling).
Whatever you had obviously affected your whole body, including one of your ears. When the blood flow was cut off to this ear, it immediately affected the two things your ears give you—your hearing and your balance.
Since the vestibular parts of your inner ears are the main balance organs in your body, when one or both of them are damaged, you typically get violently sick and the room spins— just as you experienced.
Thankfully, your hearing came back, but you are now left with what appears to be some permanent balance problems. Let me explain what happens in your ears that causes you to have these balance problems.
Your inner ears consist of two parts, the cochlea and the vestibular system. When something damages the cochlea, you lose hearing. Apparently the same thing that affected your cochlea also affected your vestibular system causing your dizziness and vertigo. Often both are damaged together since both structures lie side by side and share the same fluids.
Perhaps you don’t know this, but you actually have 3 separate balance systems in your body. First, and the most important, is the vestibular system in your ears. Second is your eyes. Trailing a distant third is your proprioceptive system (pressure sensors in your legs and feet).
Since there are two of each of these subsystems, you really have 6 separate parts of your balance system—all sending balance information to your brain. If all 6 send the same consistent information, you have normal balance.
However, if one (or more) of these parts is damaged and begins to send different (false) balance information, then instantly your brain is confused. The result is the dizziness and vertigo (spinning) you experienced.
Fortunately, over time, your brain generally learns how to ignore the bad signals. When this happens, the vertigo and much of the dizziness goes away. It can take a few months or more for your brain to adjust.
One thing that helps is to do balance exercises that teach your brain to ignore the bad balance signals, and only use the good ones.
One more point. You mention, “My wife drives me around, and just the motion of the car, and seeing cars whiz by makes me dizzy.” This is often the result of damage to your vestibulo-ocular reflex. This is just a fancy way of saying that the vestibular system in your inner ears and your eyes are tied together in intricate and wonderful ways so that when you are moving around your eyes have a stable horizon or reference point.
When this vestibulo-ocular reflex is damaged or broken, then your eyes move independently, rather than being coordinated by your brain to move in unison with your body movements. One of the results is the dizziness you feel when you, or something around you, is moving.
When you wrote, “I can’t believe that hearing plays that much of a role in having to use a walker,” you were only thinking of your ears as hearing organs. By now you realize they are so much more—they are critical to proper balance. When you don’t have good balance as you have unfortunately discovered, you cannot always function independently.