Feelings of vertigo, dizziness, and loss of balance are more prevalent than most people realize; 42% of the American population (90 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 sixty five, falls resulting from a loss of balance are the number one cause of serious injury and death.
Most (75%) of these cases are caused by peripheral vestibular disorders in the inner ear; examples of these conditions include Ménière’s disease, labyrinthitis, perilymphatic fistula, vestibular neuritis, acoustic neuroma 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. Most of the cases of vertigo and dizziness 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.
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). 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. VRT 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. It is not as likely to be beneficial if a patient’s symptoms are the result of reactions to medications, migraine headaches, low blood pressure, transient ischemic attacks (TIA) or anxiety or depression.
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 dizziness or vertigo, 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.