Have you ever experienced a sensation of dizziness where you felt like you were riding a tilt-a-whirl? That feeling of a passing dizzy spell that affects your balance, causing lightheadedness, unsteadiness or faintness, is a common occurrence and could potentially be classified as vertigo.
Vertigo is a type of dizziness typically characterized by the sudden sensation that either you’re spinning or that the world around you is spinning. The feeling can come and go, or it can last for minutes, hours or days. Along with dizziness, you may also experience nausea, vomiting, headaches, double vision or a racing heart.
What a lot of us don’t realize is vision is connected to vertigo. Traditionally, when we think about vision, we think about our ability to see clearly. However, the impact vision has on our lives is much more profound than just the clarity of the images we perceive. Vision is not an isolated system. When diagnosing and treating vertigo, it is essential to understand how vision and balance are affected by the vestibular system.
The connection between the vestibular, or inner ear system, and the visual system is extremely important because it coordinates movement with balance and provides an awareness of your spatial orientation. The visual system interacts with the vestibular system by allowing images to be seen clearly and to maintain image stability when there is head movement. For example, when you move, the vestibular system sends a message to your brain. The brain uses this information to help you maintain spatial awareness and know your direction of movement. If you make large, fast or prolonged movements such as spinning around in circles, it can take some time for your vestibular system to catch-up to your visual system and then “settle-down” after you’ve stopped moving. That is why the room can appear to continue to spin even after you’ve stopped moving.
Therefore, the proper functioning and interconnectivity of our eyes, receptors in our muscles and joints, and inner ear or vestibular system are important in maintaining balance. If the connection between these systems is interrupted, it can wreak havoc on your sense of balance and can lead to dizziness, nausea, headaches, motion sickness, vertigo and more.
If you start to experience dizziness that affects your balance that’s when danger can arise, potentially leading to falls and injuries. The most common causes of vertigo are inner ear infections or diseases of the ear such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). BPPV can occur when calcium carbonate crystals become dislodged in the canals in the inner ear, causing brief dizziness that lasts anywhere from 10 seconds to one minute. It is usually brought on by trauma to the head or by moving the head in certain positions.
If you experience symptoms of vertigo or loss of balance from a vestibular disorder, a specially trained physical therapist can evaluate you by testing your range of motion, strength, coordination, balance and vestibular system. After an evaluation, a physical therapy treatment plan will be developed and may consist of certain balance and vestibular strengthening exercises that need to be performed regularly to help decrease or eliminate symptoms of motion provoked dizziness, lightheadedness and/or loss of balance. If diagnosed with BPPV, a maneuver known as the canalith repositioning maneuver – slow movements for positioning your head to shift the particles in the inner ear may be administered. “Many people who experience chronic non-resolved motion intolerance and imbalance problems can successfully be treated with vestibular rehabilitation therapy by a specialist to eliminate these symptoms,” said Kristen Krawczyk, PT, DPT, AIB – VR, of Mather Hospital’s Physical Therapy department. “Patients are getting better and returning to their daily activities because of this treatment,” Krawczyk said. Some vertigo sufferers may also be treated with certain prescription medications.