Feelings of dizziness, vertigo, and loss of balance are more prevalent than most people imagine; 42% 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 one 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.
Most (seventy five percent) of these cases are caused by peripheral vestibular disorders in the inner ear; examples of these conditions include 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. 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.
These conditions can be treated with surgery and drugs, but there is another treatment methodology that uses physical therapy to stimulate and retrain the vestibular system and provide relief – Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT). Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy exercises are prescribed individually for each patient’s specific symptoms and often involve the use of eye exercises, gait training and head movements designed to improve patients’ gaze and stability. VRT cites its goals as seeking to improve balance, decrease the experience of dizziness, improve patients’ stability when moving or walking, 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. 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 anxiety or depression, low blood pressure, transient ischemic attacks (TIA) 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 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 can also get more information from the pamphlets and training materials provided by the Vestibular Disorders Association.