What are ear crystals?
Despite what the name suggests, ear crystals aren’t just a fancy pair of earrings. They are actually an integral part of how our body maintains balance and equilibrium.
Ear crystals — or otoconia in scientific terms — are very small clusters of cells composed of calcium carbonate that live in the body’s vestibular system in the inner ear. Their main function is to signal movement and position to the brain through small, hair-like structures in the inner ear, helping us to maintain proper balance.
Though ear crystals are minuscule in size (somewhere between 1 and 30 micrometers big), they can have a huge impact on our bodies when they become dislodged, and with approximately a thousand individual crystals in each of our ears, the potential for a dislodged ear crystal is fairly high.
What causes ear crystals to dislodge?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a significant amount of movement or an intense blow to the head to dislodge an ear crystal. Even normal, everyday motions of the head are enough to toss an ear crystal where it shouldn’t be. And, they sometimes just fall out of place and dissolve within the inner ear on their own.
When a dislodged crystal becomes a problem, though, is when it travels to another part of the inner ear, like the semicircular canals, or when it doesn’t dissolve as it should.
A number of things can cause ear crystals to remain intact after falling out of place, including a vitamin D deficiency, taking certain ototoxic medications, an ear infection, head trauma, or even normal aging. In fact, approximately 50% of all people will experience the symptoms of a rogue ear crystal by age 70.
How do you tell if your ear crystals are off?
Because of their small size, you may not notice every time an ear crystal becomes dislodged, especially if it remains in the otolith organs where it can be reabsorbed or dissolve, but it’s usually pretty easy to tell when an ear crystal isn’t where it should be.
When an ear crystal moves to the semicircular canals, you might feel intense dizziness, or a specific type of vertigo called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). More specifically, you may experience:
- Loss of balance
- The perception that the world is spinning around you
These symptoms are not unique to BPPV, though, so it’s important to get proper testing with a hearing care specialist (like the team at Colorado Ear Care) to identify the cause of your dizziness and ensure that you are set on the right path to treating it. Vertigo can also be caused by certain medical conditions, like MS and diabetes, or by prescription medication, panic attacks, and Meniere’s Disease.
Another key characteristic of BPPV is that the episodes of dizziness or spinning usually only last for a few seconds or minutes and are triggered by specific movements of the head, like sitting up after laying down or holding the head at an abnormal angle. Nonetheless, they can absolutely be disruptive enough to impact everyday activities, and it is possible (though rare) that episodes of BPPV can last for longer.
In some cases, ear crystals will dissolve on their own without requiring intervention, but it can take weeks for that to happen — and weeks is a long time to deal with the occasional bout of dizziness. So, when BPPV is diagnosed, professional intervention is often required.
How are ear crystals realigned?
If the symptoms of BPPV begin to make it hard to live a normal lifestyle, your audiologist or healthcare provider might recommend trying a treatment called canalith repositioning, which involves physically moving loose ear crystals back to the otolith organs where they can be dissolved or reabsorbed.
In order to do this, your provider will ease your head into four specific positions that, when performed together in sequence, can help move ear crystals out of the semicircular canals and back to where they belong. While it’s very effective at treating current cases of BPPV, canalith repositioning is not a preventative treatment, so it’s possible that your symptoms will return even after the procedure.
If you’re considering canalith repositioning, it’s important you work with a provider who is trained in this very specific maneuver, as it can make BPPV worse if performed incorrectly. Seek out an audiologist or hearing care expert who has experience and training in canalith repositioning, and never try to carry out canalith repositioning at home.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of BPPV, Colorado Ear Care can help!
Sudden onset dizziness can be a frightening and uncomfortable experience, and, while some dislodged ear crystals do dissolve or move back on their own, most cases of BPPV should be addressed by a professional to help you return to a normal, dizzy-free lifestyle.
If you live in the Denver or Boulder areas, Colorado Ear Care has the most comprehensive balance and dizziness services available in the state. Not only can we help diagnose vertigo, including BPPV, but we also have the technology and experience required to treat vestibular issues, too.
Reach out to us to schedule an appointment today.