Feelings of dizziness, vertigo, and loss of balance are more prevalent than most people realize; fourty two percent of the American population (90 million people) experience this at least once during their lifetime, and for many the situation becomes chronic. In the elderly, dizziness is the most common reason that people over 75 visit a doctor, and for people over 65, falls resulting from a loss of balance are the number 1 cause of death and serious injury.
Approximately three-fourths of these cases of loss of balance and dizziness are caused by peripheral vestibular disorders that affect the middle and inner ear, such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), labyrinthitis, perilymphatic fistula, Ménière’s disease and vestibular neuritis, acoustic neuroma. These disorders cause abnormalities in the delicate areas of the inner ear that disrupt our ability to maintain and control our sense of balance. Although most cases of chronic dizziness and vertigo occur in adults, the condition can affect children suffering from it even more, because they are so active that a lack of balance can prevent them from engaging in sports or other activities.
These conditions can be treated with drugs and surgery, but there is another treatment methodology that uses physical therapy to stimulate and retrain the vestibular system and provide relief – Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT). The VRT exercises are individually prescribed for each patient’s symptoms and complaints, but in general they consist of gait training, eye exercises and head movements designed to reduce symptoms and improve stability. Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy cites its goals as seeking to improve balance, decrease the experience of dizziness, improve patients’ stability when walking or moving, improve coordination, minimize falls, and reduce anxiety.
For many people suffering from bilateral or unilateral vestibular loss and the conditions described above, VRT has often been shown to be effective in reducing their symptoms. The effectiveness of VRT in patients suffering from these conditions who did not respond to earlier treatment methodologies has been proven in several clinical trials. On the other hand, VRT is not as likely to be beneficial if the underlying cause of dizziness or vertigo is due to reactions to medications, migraine headaches, transient ischemic attacks (TIA), anxiety or depression or low blood pressure.
It is difficult to provide a general overview of the VRT exercises because they are individually tuned to and prescribed for each patient. But most of the exercises involve therapist-led movements of the head and body to help your brain and body retrain themselves to compensate for the erroneous information they are receiving from their inner ear, and thus regain control over their balance and equilibrium. If you have experienced long-term symptoms of vertigo or dizziness, consult a balance specialist and ask for more information. You may also want to contact the Vestibular Disorders Association and take advantage of many of their short publications and resource materials.