24 Aug 2016
You roll out of bed and the room begins to spin. You bend over to tie your shoes and suddenly you’re dizzy.
You reach for that can of coffee on the top shelf and clutch the counter, fearful you may fall. Dizziness and imbalance are common problems that we experience as we age. These sensations can be very disturbing and may increase the risk of falling. If left untreated, loss of function and disability can occur.
But why is your world suddenly spinning out of control? Your doctor tells you that you have a Vestibular Disorder. Now your head is really spinning! What is that? Is it serious? Will it go away? Although it sounds scary, the good news is there are ways to reduce or even eliminate the symptoms associated with vestibular disorders so you can get back to doing the activities you enjoy.
What is the vestibular system?
The vestibular system is responsible for processing the sensory information that controls and coordinates our balance and eye movements. Vestibular dysfunction can come from the central nervous system or from the vestibular organs which are located in the inner ear. When sensory information is impaired, you can suffer from vertigo, dizziness, disequilibrium, difficulty walking, and nausea. You may also experience imbalance, spatial disorientation, vision changes, hearing changes, changes in your mental abilities (focus, memory and concentration) and/or physical fatigue. It is not uncommon to feel anxious, depressed, or isolated. If you experience any of these symptoms, you should let your doctor know.
Why is this happening?
Symptoms such as dizziness, disequilibrium, and vertigo may stem from different sources and require different treatment plans. Explaining to your health care provider exactly what you are experiencing will help you get an accurate diagnosis and the most appropriate care.
Dizziness is a sensation of lightheadedness or floating. Disequilibrium is the loss of equilibrium (steadiness) experienced as imbalance or spatial disorientation. Vertigo is the perception of rotational spinning or whirling. All of these symptoms can stem from a problem with the vestibular system.
Conditions such as acoustic neuromas, traumatic brain injury, Meniere’s disease, and ear infections can all affect the vestibular system. Certain chemicals and medications are toxic to the ear and can damage the inner ear, causing dizziness and vestibular impairments. Vestibular disorders can also result from genetic or environmental factors, aging, or for seemingly no reason at all.
What should I do?
Consult an appropriate medical professional to determine the source of your troubles. Your primary care physician or an Ear Nose and Throat specialist (ENT) can order specialized tests to evaluate the function of your vestibular system and rule out alternative causes.
If you have vertigo accompanied by one or more of the following symptoms, call 911 immediately: double vision; difficulty speaking; a change in alertness; the inability to walk; or arm or leg weakness.
If you are experiencing imbalance, falls or motion sensitivity a physical therapist can help.
How can a physical therapist help?
All physical therapists (PTs) are skilled at treating people who have balance problems. PTs with extensive vestibular training and/or a PT that is a board-certified Neurologic Clinical Specialist (NCS) have advanced knowledge, experience, and skills treating vestibular conditions. The aim of vestibular physical therapy is to help the brain become accustomed to the changed information from the inner ear, and to assist you in developing other ways to maintain balance and prevent falls. Typically, this is accomplished by repositioning techniques for the inner ear (canal repositioning techniques), exercises to coordinate signals between your brain, inner ears and eyes, and balance training activities. Your therapist’s main focus is to help you get moving again while reducing your sensation of dizziness, disequilibrium, or vertigo and reducing your risk for falls. If you have a vestibular problem, a physical therapist has the skill and expertise required to help bring your life back into balance.