For Jon, the four-mile trek through the Woodland Trail in Shelby Forest was always the perfect way to welcome the weekend. But one hike last fall felt different.
As trail runners passed him, he felt disoriented. He hadn’t heard them coming, and he nearly fell on one of the inclines, catching his balance at the last second to avoid a nasty fall.
He’d taken this trail hundreds of times, but something felt off.
He had heard there was a connection between balance and hearing, so he came to see me. As he suspected, Jon had mild hearing loss. It was impacting his balance.
Are you losing your balance? Here’s what I’d like you to know.
What Is “Losing Your Balance”?
Your body balances through the vestibular system in your inner ear. In a split-second, this network of sensory cells distinguishes between normal movement like walking or dancing versus unstable movement where you’re losing your balance.
Balance relies on cues from the environment to understand when it needs to react. It sends rapid signals and causes automatic responses like shifting your body weight to prevent a fall.
But when it’s not working well, you might feel like you’re falling even when you’re upright. Those automatic responses could cause you to fall or feel sick like you may have felt if you ever rode the Pirate Ship at Libertyland.
The Connection Between Balance and Hearing
Hearing also happens in the inner ear. But the connection between balance and hearing runs deeper. A study at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that when hearing loss is treated, balance is also improved.
The senior author of the WU study said of the results, “We don’t think it’s just that wearing hearing aids makes the person more alert … The participants appeared to be using the sound information coming through their hearing aids as auditory reference points or landmarks to help maintain balance.”
In daily life, you know how close you are to a person or object because of hearing. When hearing declines, you no longer have this orientation tool. It’s easier for someone or something to walk up and surprise you even if they didn’t intend to startle you.
Additionally, when I hear well, I can stay more connected to others. I can follow conversations and hear warnings when I’m in danger.
Once Jon started wearing his behind-the-ear Bluetooth hearing aid, he could hear the trail runners coming before they were up beside him and didn’t experience disorientation.
Given the importance of hearing to balance, it’s no wonder that a Johns Hopkins study found that even mild hearing loss increases fall risk three-fold. They also found that treating hearing loss could reverse the risk after they accounted for other factors.
Do Hearing Aids Treat Balance Issues?
Hearing aids don’t treat your vestibular system directly. But if your disorientation is related to hearing, wearing hearing aids may help, as seen in these studies.
Losing your balance more often may also be an early sign your hearing is declining, as was the case with Jon. As an audiologist, I can also identify other causes for balance issues.
If you’re experiencing balance or hearing challenges, schedule an appointment with our office.