If you suffer from persistent dizziness, nausea, and poor balance, then you may have a vestibular disorder. Vestibular disorders are common, especially in the elderly, and chronic nausea can significantly reduce your quality of life. A poor sense of balance also increases the risk that you'll accidentally fall down while you're walking, which can lead to injury.
Thankfully, vestibular disorders can often be treated by a physical therapist trained in vestibular therapy rehabilitation. These specially-designed exercises take advantage of your brain's ability to rewire connections between its neurons, forcing it to adapt to changes within the vestibular system. To learn more about the vestibular system and how vestibular therapy can help improve your balance and significantly reduce feelings of dizziness, read on.
What Is the Vestibular System?
The vestibular system is within the inner ear. It's a complex system of nerves and canals that are filled with fluid. The fluid within your inner ear will shift as the position of your head changes, and the position of the fluid is constantly being communicated to your brain via the nerves in the inner ear. This allows your brain to know the way that your head and the rest of your body is oriented.
What Causes Vestibular Dysfunction?
Vestibular dysfunction is most commonly caused by a change in your inner ear. This can be caused by injury, disease or simply due to your inner ear changing with age. When this happens, the brain is still acclimated to the way that the inner ear was laid out before the change. It becomes confused by the new signals emanating from it, which results in dizziness.
The vestibular system is only one part of how the body knows its orientation in space. The other two components are your vision and your somatosensory system. The somatosensory system is constantly receiving signals from your skin, your muscles, and your joints to determine the way that your body is oriented. When one of these systems doesn't agree with the others, people begin to feel dizzy and lose their sense of balance. Nausea is common as well.
Seasickness is a good example of what happens when your vestibular system is in disagreement with your vision and your somatosensory system. When you're below decks, the waves gently rock the boat around. Your vestibular system is very sensitive, so it can pick up on this rocking motion. To your vision and your somatosensory system, however, you appear to be on level ground. When you have a vestibular disorder, it can feel like you're seasick all the time.
How Can Vestibular Therapy Help Restore Vestibular Function?
In much the same way that veteran sailors become acclimated to being out at sea and reduce the symptoms of seasickness, vestibular therapy can be used to reduce the symptoms of a vestibular disorder.
Vestibular therapy uses habituation and adaptation to retrain the way that your brain processes signals from your vestibular system. Your physical therapist will give you a number of balance exercises to perform that are designed to stress your vestibular system, your vision, and your somatosensory system at the same time.
These exercises include walking around a spiral traced on the ground, walking while you have your gaze fixed on a single point in the distance, and walking on a variety of different surfaces with your head tilted. In addition, you'll repeatedly perform movements that cause the symptoms of your vestibular disorder to flare up.
The reason why you perform these exercises is to force your brain to adapt to the changes in your vestibular system. By continually moving in a way that uses your vision, somatosensory system, and vestibular system together, your brain slowly relearns how to process information coming from your inner ear.
You'll meet with your physical therapist one or two times a week in order to learn these exercises. You'll also be expected to perform them at home every day. For most people, symptoms begin subsiding within a few weeks. However, it typically takes about three months for full adaptation.
If you suffer from persistent dizziness and trouble with your balance due to a vestibular disorder, schedule an appointment with a physical therapist in your area who provides vestibular therapy rehabilitation. You'll undergo a quick examination to determine what movements trouble your vestibular system the most, and your physical therapist will design an exercise plan that's specifically tailored to fix your vestibular disorder.