The floating sensation or feeling unbalanced is often associated with vertigo or an inner ear infection that can cause imbalance. Other causes of a floating feeling include atrial fibrillation or temporomandibular joint dysfunction disorder. Read below for more information on causes and treatment options.
9 causes of imbalance or floating feeling
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV, is a common cause of vertigo –dizziness whenever the position of the head is significantly changed.
BPPV may occur after a head injury, whether minor or serious; or it can be caused by inner ear damage, which affects balance.
Most susceptible are women over 50, though it can happen to anyone at any age.
Symptoms include mild to intense dizziness or spinning; loss of balance; nausea; and sometimes vomiting. Flickering, jerking eye movements called nystagmus often occur at the same time.
Though BPPV is not dangerous in itself, it can cause falls and interfere with quality of life. If the dizziness occurs with severe headache, vision changes, trouble speaking, or paralysis, take the patient to the emergency room or call 9-1-1.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination, particularly looking for nystagmus. Specialized eye tests and imaging may be done.
BPPV may eventually resolve on its own. If not, therapy to adjust the sensitivity of the inner ear may be done, and in some cases surgery is effective.
Top Symptoms: nausea, episodic dizziness, vomiting, vertigo (extreme dizziness), dizziness
Symptoms that always occur with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo: episodic dizziness
Symptoms that never occur with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo: hearing loss, heartbeat sound in the ear, ringing in the ears
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Atrial fibrillation (A-fib) is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) characterized by a rapid rate and irregular rhythm that feels like the heart is quivering. It can lead to chest discomfort, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, and the formation of blood clots, which can cause..
Temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder
Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction is often caused by a variety of factors, including daily habits, your teeth alignment, and even stress. It usually affects one side of the jaw, but in some people it can affect both sides. People with TMJ dysfunction will typically experience pain on one side of the face that is worse with chewing, yawning, or other movements of the jaw. With some simple changes in your daily habits and other at-home treatments, most people with TMJ dysfunction will experience relief of their symptoms within weeks.
Treatment for temporomandibular joint dysfunction usually includes avoiding eating hard foods or foods that require a lot of chewing. Good posture and relaxation techniques may help relieve tension in the muscles that connect to your temporomandibular joint. In people who clench or grind their teeth, a mouth guard worn at night (and fitted by your dentist) may also help relieve your symptoms. Pain relievers, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can also help.
Top Symptoms: dizziness, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, history of headaches, jaw pain, pain in the back of the neck
Symptoms that always occur with temporomandibular joint (tmj) dysfunction disorder: pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Non-urgent tinnitus needing hearing tests
Tinnitus is the medical term for ringing in the ears. Tinnitus is always a symptom of another disorder and is not a disease in itself.
Tinnitus occurs when nerves within the ear are damaged by prolonged exposure to loud noise or to certain drugs. The disrupted activity in the nerves causes them to overreact and produce the sounds known as tinnitus. When nerves are damaged enough to cause tinnitus, there will also be some degree of hearing loss.
Symptoms of tinnitus include a ringing, buzzing, or high-pitched whining sound within the ears. The hearing loss may or may not be noticed by the patient.
Tinnitus is not serious in itself, but can interfere with quality of life. There are treatments that can help with the discomfort it causes.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and hearing tests.
Treatment involves use of a hearing aid, which can better conduct normal sounds across the damaged nerves of the ear; and treating any underlying conditions, such as high blood pressure.
Top Symptoms: ringing in the ears, ear pain
Symptoms that always occur with non-urgent tinnitus needing hearing tests: ringing in the ears
Symptoms that never occur with non-urgent tinnitus needing hearing tests: heartbeat sound in the ear, ear discharge, vertigo (extreme dizziness), face weakness, ear pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Ear wax production is a normal process, as the body makes wax to protect the ear from infection. Sometimes ear wax can build up and cover the eardrum, which is a thin layer of skin that stretches across the end of the ear canal and picks up sound from outside. Ear wax buildup has nothing to do with poor hygiene, and it is not possible to prevent a build-up by washing.
Top Symptoms: dizziness, dry cough, ear canal pain, ear fullness/pressure, ringing in the ears
Symptoms that never occur with earwax blockage: swollen ear, fever
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Inner ear infection (labyrinthitis)
An inner ear infection, also called labyrinthitis, affects the delicate bony structures deep within the ear.
Labyrinthitis usually follows a viral infection such as the common cold, influenza, mumps, or the measles. In rare cases, usually in young children, it can be caused by bacteria.
Risk factors include a middle ear infection; meningitis; or any autoimmune disorder.
Symptoms include vertigo, where the person feels that the world is spinning around them; nausea and vomiting; some loss of hearing; ear pain, sometimes with drainage from the ear canal; and ringing in the ears (tinnitus.)
Viral symptoms may at least partially resolve on their own, but treatment can rule out a more serious condition as well as address the pain and discomfort. Bacterial labyrinthitis is often more serious and can cause permanent hearing loss.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes a hearing test.
Treatment for viral labyrinthitis includes rest, fluids, and over-the-counter pain relievers. Antibiotics will be prescribed for bacterial labyrinthitis.
Top Symptoms: nausea, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, fever
Symptoms that always occur with inner ear infection (labyrinthitis): vertigo or imbalance
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Brain tumor or mass
In medical terms, "mass" and "tumor" mean the same thing: the unexplained, out-of-place growth of tissue anywhere in the body, including the brain.
The cause of any sort of brain tumor is unknown. Some originate in the brain, while others spread from cancers growing in other parts of the body.
Symptoms may include increasing headaches; nausea and vomiting; blurred or double vision; loss of sensation in an arm or leg; loss of balance; confusion; speech difficulties; or seizures.
If symptoms persist, it is important to see a medical provider so that any treatment can begin as soon as possible.
Diagnosis is made through neurological examination, CT scan, and/or MRI.
If the mass or tumor is found to be benign, that means it is not cancer and not harmful. It may or may not be treated.
If it is malignant, that means it is cancer and must be treated. This will involve some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, followed by specialized therapy to help with recovery.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability
Symptoms that always occur with brain tumor or mass: focal neurological symptoms
Urgency: In-person visit
Post-concussion syndrome is a set of symptoms that can occur after a head injury. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that involves confusion and memory loss, with or without a loss of consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome typically occurs after concuss..
Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear that affects balance and hearing.
Meniere's disease is due to an abnormality in the inner ear that results in low levels of fluid, thus interfering with the sense of balance. The abnormality may be hereditary or it could be from allergies, autoimmune disease, or other illness.
Symptoms usually affect only one ear and include severe attacks of vertigo, or the sensation of spinning; tinnitus, or ringing in the ear; pressure inside the ear; and increasing deafness. These symptoms are unpredictable and can come and go without warning.
Meniere's disease is progressive and will not go away on its own. It can lead to a severe loss of hearing and balance, and so a medical provider should be seen at the earliest symptoms.
Diagnosis is made through patient history; physical examination; hearing tests; and balance tests.
There is no cure for Meniere's disease, but it can be treated with motion sickness and anti-nausea medicines, hearing aids, and occasionally surgery.
Top Symptoms: nausea, ringing in the ears, vertigo (extreme dizziness), ear fullness/pressure, brief fainting episode
Symptoms that always occur with meniere's disease: dizziness: at least 2 episodes
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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Questions your doctor may ask about imbalance or floating feeling
- Have you experienced any nausea?
- Do you hear a ringing or whistling sound no one else hears?
- Do you notice your heart beating hard, rapidly, or irregularly (also called palpitations)?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Imbalance or floating feeling symptom checker statistics
People who have experienced imbalance or floating feeling have also experienced:
- 8% Fatigue
- 8% Dizziness
- 6% Headache
People who have experienced imbalance or floating feeling were most often matched with:
- 53% Atrial Fibrillation
- 23% Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo
- 23% Temporomandibular Joint (Tmj) Dysfunction Disorder
People who have experienced imbalance or floating feeling had symptoms persist for:
- 41% Less than a day
- 25% Less than a week
- 17% Over a month
Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from Buoy Assistant.
For the past few months, I have lost my balance & fell several times. The other morning I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't sit up & was clutching the side of the mattress. I was finally able to get to a sitting position and had to crawl to the bathroom. Sometimes I have propulsive symptoms when I walk as if someone is pushing me forward. I am diabetic and have minimal neuropathy in my feet. My PCP attributes my balance problems to aging, but they came on suddenly. Her PA said it's from taking trazadone, which I've been on for years, and I haven't increased the dose. I am a 73-year-old otherwise healthy female.
Hi. My name is Amit. It's been 2 years. I have been having a floating sensation while walking as if I am going to fall. But I don't fall at that time. I still don't get what's wrong. I have had brain MRI, spinal MRI. Both are normal.