Feelings of vertigo, dizziness, and loss of balance are more common than most people imagine; fourty two percent of the American population (ninety million people) experience this at least once during their lifetime, and for many the condition becomes chronic. Dizziness is the number 1 reason that people over the age of seventy five visit doctors, and falls due to a loss of balance are the leading cause of serious injury and death in people over the age of 65.
Approximately three-fourths of these cases of loss of balance and dizziness are caused by peripheral vestibular disorders that affect the inner and middle ear, such as Ménière’s disease, vestibular neuritis, acoustic neuroma, labyrinthitis, perilymphatic fistula and benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). 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 vertigo and dizziness occur in adults, the condition can affect kids 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 eye exercises, head movements and gait training designed to reduce symptoms and improve stability. The goals of VRT are to improve balance, minimize falls, decrease the subjective experience of dizziness, improve patients’ stability when walking or moving, improve coordination, and reduce the anxiety they often feel as a result of their condition.
Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms for many people suffering from the conditions mentioned above, and for those with other forms of bilateral or unilateral vestibular loss. 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. It is not as likely to be beneficial if a patient’s symptoms are the result of transient ischemic attacks (TIA), anxiety or depression, low blood pressure or reactions to medications, migraine headaches.
It is difficult to provide a general overview of the VRT exercises because they are individually tuned to and prescribed for each patient. But are all taught by trained VRT therapists, and often involve movements of the head, eyes, and body that enable your brain and body to retrain themselves and regain control over their equilibrium and balance, compensating more effectively for the incorrect information sent to them from their inner ear. If you have experienced long-term symptoms of vertigo or dizziness, consult a balance specialist and ask for more information. You can also get more information from the pamphlets and training materials provided by the Vestibular Disorders Association.