Feelings of dizziness, vertigo, 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. 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 one 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 inner and middle ear, such as vestibular neuritis, acoustic neuroma, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), Ménière’s disease and labyrinthitis, perilymphatic fistula. All of these conditions affect the inner ear and the delicate system that handles our sense of balance and enables us to maintain control over it. Most of the cases of vertigo and dizziness occur in adults, but these conditions can affect children 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 1 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. Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy exercises are prescribed individually for each patient’s specific symptoms and often involve the use of head movements, eye exercises and gait training designed to improve patients’ gaze and stability. The goals of VRT are to improve balance, minimize falls, decrease the subjective experience of dizziness, improve patients’ stability when moving or walking, improve coordination, and reduce the anxiety they often feel as a result of their condition.
For many people suffering from bilateral or unilateral vestibular loss and the conditions described above, Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy has often been shown to be effective in reducing their symptoms. Several studies have confirmed VRT’s effectiveness in patients who did not respond to other treatment methodologies. On the other hand, Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy is not as likely to be beneficial if the underlying cause of vertigo or dizziness is due to reactions to medications, migraine headaches, low blood pressure, anxiety or depression or transient ischemic attacks (TIA).
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 Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy. You can also get more information from the pamphlets and training materials provided by the Vestibular Disorders Association.