A Balancing Act
Day or night, your ears keep you upright!
The inner ear is made up of a complicated series of structures and mechanisms. The hearing system (cochlea) on one side receives and transfers sounds to the brain for processing via the nerve.
On the other side, sharing fluid with the cochlea is the balance system – consisting of the otolith organs and semi-circular canals. This tiny, intricate system needs precise functioning and coordination to send signals to the brain, which integrates with information from our eyes and sensation in our feet, to control balance.
Although the hearing and balance organs themselves are fully formed at birth, their connections with the brain mature over time, with the balance system reaching full development by six years, and central hearing pathways at 12 years.
One in 20 children have balance disorders
Hearing and balance disorders are not always easily recognised in children, mostly because children often cannot describe their symptoms well. Identification requires coordinating descriptions from the child and parents, as well as clinical observations by professionals.
I suspect my child has a problem – now what?
Early identification is key! If you think your child has a balance or hearing disorder, it is important to have her assessed by a qualified audiologist as soon as possible. Due to the close relationship between the balance and hearing organs, audiologists are specially trained in balance disorders. Depending on your child’s set of symptoms and signs, various assessments will be performed to identify the exact cause of dysfunction and determine a treatment plan to provide the best possible outcomes.
Some common causes affecting hearing and balance include:
- Ear infections
- Viral infections
- Birth complications (e.g. oxygen deprivation)
- Metabolic disorders (e.g. diabetes)
- Head and neck trauma (e.g. sports injuries)
- Neurological disorders
Other common signs and symptoms that you may notice:
- Vision difficulties, especially with head movements
- Poor spatial relationships – skipping words or letters when reading, disorganized writing style
- Nystagmus (involuntary eye movements)
- Motion sickness/sensitivity
- Abnormal movement patterns
- Headaches with nausea and/or dizziness
A hearing loss may be missed in infants and young children if hearing is not tested routinely. Having an undetected hearing loss may significantly affect academic performance, as classroom noise (e.g. chairs scraping or outside noise) further interferes with hearing and processing.
Early signs to look out for include:
- Delayed speech-language milestones
- Not startled by loud noises
- Inconsistent response when called
- Constantly asks for repetition
- Watches TV at a loud volume
- Speaks in a loud voice