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Examiner
  • Dizziness: All in your head?

  • A typical summertime diversion involves getting into the seat of a roller coaster or other amusement park ride in order to obtain a slightly strange dizzy feeling from the weightlessness and gravity forces applied during the experience.

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  • A typical summertime diversion involves getting into the seat of a roller coaster or other amusement park ride in order to obtain a slightly strange dizzy feeling from the weightlessness and gravity forces applied during the experience.
    But imagine getting that dizzy or weightless feeling without having been on any ride – and it doesn’t go away. This is known as a vestibular disorder and according to one recent large epidemiological study, around 70 million Americans over the age of 40 have experienced this in some form and more than 40 percent of our population is expected to experience this during their lifetimes.
    Dizziness, vertigo and disequilibrium are common symptoms of vestibular problems. They are all symptoms that can result from a peripheral vestibular disorder (a dysfunction of the balance organs of the inner ear), or a central vestibular disorder (a dysfunction of one or more parts of the central nervous system that help process balance and spatial information).
    While these symptoms can be linked to a common cause, they are different and describing them accurately to a doctor can mean the difference in a getting the correct diagnosis. Symptoms include:
    n Dizziness is a sensation of lightheadedness, faintness or unsteadiness.
    n Vertigo, unlike dizziness, has a rotational or spinning component. It is the perception of movement, of yourself or surrounding objects.
    n Disequilibrium simply means a loss of equilibrium or the inability to determine true body position, motion and altitude relative to surroundings. Spatial disorientation, as it is known affects both airplane pilots and underwater divers.
    According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), eight million American adults report long-term problems with balance, while millions more suffer from chronic dizziness. This is a significant risk to those aged 65 and older because it increases the risk for falls.
    So, what causes it?
    Sensory input from your eyes, touch sensors in your body and the inner ear are all processed by the brain. But it’s some hair cells with tiny crystals in your inner ear, called “ear rocks” that stimulate nerve cells when we move our heads – and send signals back to our brain to guide our sense of up and down.
    If these little rocks fall off into one of the inner ear canals, the brain senses that the head is moving a lot more than it actually is resulting in vertigo.
    What can be done about it?
    At St. Mary’s Medical Center’s Outpatient Therapy department, we see a number of cases. Mostly caused by aging, but some due to disease or injury. Following a thorough evaluation and testing, a qualified physical therapist can develop an individualized treatment plan that may involve medication from your physician, but primarily, some valuable exercises.
    Page 2 of 2 - Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy is a form of physical therapy that uses specialized exercises involving head movement – essential in stimulating and retraining the vestibular system. Vestibular rehabilitation therapy has been highly effective in most adults and children with these types of disorders.
    The goal of VRT is to retrain the brain to recognize and process signals from the vestibular system in coordination with vision and body sensors. This often involves desensitizing the balance system to some movements that can bring on or aggravate symptoms.
    Symptoms of chronic dizziness or imbalance can have a significant impact on the ability of a person to perform one or more activities of daily living such as bathing, dressing, or simply getting around inside the home.
    If you, or someone you know is having difficulty “getting off the roller coaster,” see your doctor soon.
    Lisa Hulik is a doctor of physical therapy and practices in the Outpatient Therapy department at St. Mary’s Medical Center and can be reached at 816-655-5700.
     
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