Over 90 million people (fourty two percent of the American population) experience feelings of vertigo, dizziness, and loss of balance during their lifetime; for many of them, this encounter becomes a chronic condition. In the elderly, dizziness is the most common reason that people over 75 visit a doctor, and for people over sixty five, falls resulting from a loss of balance are the number one cause of serious injury and death.
Approximately three-fourths of these cases of dizziness and loss of balance are caused by peripheral vestibular disorders that affect the middle and inner ear, such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), vestibular neuritis, acoustic neuroma, Ménière’s disease and labyrinthitis, perilymphatic fistula. These disorders cause abnormalities in the delicate areas of the inner ear that disrupt our ability to maintain and control our sense of balance. Most of the cases of dizziness and vertigo occur in adults, but these conditions can affect kids as well, with even greater impact because they are often involved with athletics or playground activities in which a sense of balance is key.
There are surgical and drug treatments for these conditions, but one of the alternative therapies is called Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT), a form of physical therapy that uses specialized sets of movements to stimulate and retrain the vestibular system. The Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy exercises are individually prescribed for each patient’s symptoms and complaints, but in general they consist of eye exercises, gait training 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.
VRT 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. Several studies have confirmed VRT’s effectiveness in patients who did not respond to other treatment methodologies. On the other hand, VRT is not as likely to be beneficial if the underlying cause of vertigo or dizziness 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. Consult a balance specialist if you have experienced vertigo or dizziness for long periods of time, and if an inner ear cause of the problem is indicated, ask for more information about VRT. You may also want to contact the Vestibular Disorders Association and take advantage of many of their short publications and resource materials.