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Vestibular Dysfunction – The Unseen Risk of Hearing Loss

Did you know that the structures of the ear play a role in more than just hearing? Deep within the ear, past the outer and middle ear and into the inner ear is a labyrinth of delicate structures that not only help us hear the world around us, but are also crucial to our balance and eye movements.

When this system isn’t functioning correctly or optimally, it can create vestibular dysfunction. While this type of dysfunction can happen at any age for various reasons and severely impact daily life, recent research is focusing on children with hearing loss who are at higher risk of developing vestibular dysfunction.

What is vestibular dysfunction

The vestibular system is made up of several structures in the inner ear which work together with information from our eyes and muscles to provide information to the brain. These signals are compiled and interpreted by the brain to help us orient ourselves in space, manage our balance and even control eye movements.

This system can be damaged or interrupted creating vestibular dysfunction. This can be due to aging, injuries, disease or illness causing symptoms such as:

  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Vision problems
  • Changes to hearing
  • Imbalance or spatial disorientation

It is estimated that around 69 million Americans have experienced some form of vestibular dysfunction. That is just the adults, though. A recent study indicates that children with hearing loss may be at high risk of vestibular dysfunction but is their diagnosis coming too late?

The facts about children with hearing loss

According to the National Institutes of Health, “about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears.” Plus, 5 out of every 1,000 kids age 3 to 17 are reported to have some hearing loss. These children are at higher risk of vestibular dysfunction, yet that dysfunction often goes undiagnosed without the right early screening.

Experts see this opportunity to improve care and are now taking steps to better diagnose and treat these issues early with simple vestibular screenings. Often children with this combination of hearing loss and vestibular dysfunction can experience delays in the development of balance and gross motor skills including:

  • Delayed sitting or walking
  • Difficulty learning to ride a bike or similar activities
  • Impaired reading
  • Unsteadiness or frequent falling

According to recent investigations, a combination of screenings can help identify children that may need further testing. These screenings include:

  • Head Impulse Test (HIT)
  • Dynamic Visual Acuity (DVA) Screening
  • Single Leg Stance
  • Standing on Foam with Eyes Open/Closed.

In the investigation, of the children with hearing loss who were screened, 39% were identified as needing additional testing. Of those, all but one had some level of vestibular dysfunction. When used consistently for children with hearing loss, these screenings can prove invaluable in identifying dysfunction and creating personalized therapy programs to rapidly overcome that dysfunction and avoid developmental delays.

Experts agree this simple screening process could make all the difference for millions of children and their families.

If you believe your child has hearing loss and is experiencing any of the symptoms of vestibular dysfunction above, contact our office to schedule a hearing evaluation and learn more.

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