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How to Combat a Common Cause of Vertigo

Posted 12/12/2016 by UHBlog

If you feel dizzy, unsteady or have problems with balance talk to us. We can help.

How to Combat a Common Cause of Vertigo

If your world is spinning while the rest of the world stands still, it may not always be love. You may have vertigo, a diagnosis given to those who complain of dizziness. In fact, vertigo is the No. 1 reason why people over age 75 see their doctors.

“Vertigo is the illusion of movement of yourself or your environment,” says Amy McMillin, MSPT, a physical therapist and neurovestibular specialist at University Hospitals Warrensville Outpatient and Neuro Rehab Center. “You feel like the room is moving when you’re actually still. I've had people liken it to a tilt-a-whirl (ride) inside your head.”

The lack of balance caused by vertigo can lead to falls that may result in broken bones, hospitalizations and/or death. You should see your doctor for a check up right away if you’re persistently feeling dizzy.

According to McMillin, balance is maintained by a complex interaction involving many parts of the nervous system, including:

  • The inner ear, also called the labyrinth, which monitors motions such as turning or going forward-backward, side-to-side and up-and-down.
  • The eyes, which monitor where the body is in space - for example, upside down, right side up, etc. – and the direction of motion.
  • The pressure receptors in the joints of the lower extremities and the spine which tell what part of the body is down and what part is touching the ground.
  • The muscle and joint sensory receptors – also called proprioception - which indicate what parts of the body are moving.
  • The brain, which processes all this information to maintain balance and equilibrium.

As you age, there is a fall off in how efficiently these systems work. Nerve problems may lessen how well you can touch or feel. Your eyesight impacts your ability to tell what is around you.

“The vestibular system is one that doctors can’t see because it's part of your inner ear,” says McMillin. “When we get older, the small hairs that give us balance can degenerate, causing constant lightheadedness or dizziness.”

You also have small stones in your ears that become less sticky as you age. They can fall into the canals of the inner ear and cause benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). When you tilt your head, bend over or roll out of bed, the stones move and you can get vertigo.

“One risk of developing BPPV that is often overlooked is a visit to the hairdresser or dentist,” she says. “When we tip our head back far enough, the stones can fall out. This results in brief bouts of vertigo for a minute when you move your head, then feeling like you're lightheaded the rest of the day.”

In addition to aging, there are other reasons for vertigo, McMillin says. Inactivity and immobility can cause dizziness. Diabetes is another concern, usually from nerve damage. Head trauma can be a problem at any age. Inner ear infections cause disruption in balance. Finally, certain medicines can start the room turning around.

To prevent vertigo, McMillin recommends:

  • Avoiding rapid changes in body position
  • Avoiding rapid head motion, especially those involving turning or twisting
  • Eliminating or decreasing the use of products that can lessen blood circulation, such as tobacco, alcohol and caffeine
  • Minimizing stress
  • Drinking enough fluids
  • Treating infections, including ear infections, colds, flu, sinus congestion and other respiratory infections, immediately

Depending on the cause, vertigo can usually be easily treated, McMillin says. Tai chi exercises help with balance training and strength. Vestibular rehabilitation are special exercises using a series of head movements to coax the stones out of the canal and back where they belong. If the vertigo is caused by an infection, treating it and then following with vestibular exercises will often take care of the problem in a few weeks.

“There is strong evidence that seniors benefit from treatment,” she says. “Vertigo isn’t something you have to live with.”

Amy McMillin, MSPT, is a physical therapist and neurovestibular specialist at University Hospitals Warrensville Outpatient and Neuro Rehab Center. You can request an appointment with McMillin or any other health care provider online.

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