For someone with healthy balance, walking along a beach, moving on an escalator, or walking in grass or other uneven surfaces is something we take for granted. But if you or someone you love is suffering from a balance disorder, you know that it can be a frightening experience.
A balance disorder is a disturbance that causes an individual to feel unsteady, woozy, or have a sensation of movement, spinning, or floating. According to the National Institute of Health, experts believe that more than 40 percent of Americans will experience dizziness that is serious enough to go to a doctor. In addition, balance disorders increase in frequency in the older age groups and by age 75 become one of the most common reasons for seeking help from physicians.
There are three different ways that we make sure we stay steady on our feet:
- Our inner ear has a complicated system that tells our brain when we are moving, standing still, or bending over. If there is a problem with the inner ear, it sends the brain wrong messages about what your head is doing, and that can cause balance difficulty.
- Our vision tells us if we are moving also. Have you ever been sitting in a stopped car and when the car next to you starts to move, you feel like you are the one moving? That is your vision playing a trick on you.
- Our muscles and joints also play a role in supporting an upright position. If there is muscle weakness or problems with communication between joints in the body, the brain does not get the right signals.
The brain serves as an interpreter of all of this data and makes sure all the information coming from these three sources is clear and consistent. But for a person suffering from balance disorders, one or more of the three systems is not communicating the same information and this confuses the brain and results in feeling off balance.
For diagnosis and treatment of a balance disorder, start with your doctor. The origin of the problem may be something that can be treated medically. There may be other problems involved that are causing symptoms of balance disorders, such as an ear infection, stroke, head injury, or multiple sclerosis. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist and there may be some testing to assess the problem.
If in turn you are referred to a physical therapist, what can you expect? Typically, a physical therapist will get a full history from you and assess problems with balance, dizziness, strength, flexibility, and age-appropriate activities. Treatment will focus on improving balance function, decreasing dizziness symptoms, and increasing overall activity levels as safely as possible. The emphasis will be on a program with daily exercises to be performed at home.
It’s best to keep a daily log or diary to track how your exercises are going and any changes in symptoms you notice. Your therapist may also want to see you in the clinic from time to time to monitor your progress and adjust your exercises.
Treatment will be specific to each person, and the goal will be to get you back on your feet as quickly and safely as possible.
Balance disorders can be difficult to resolve, but if you have a history of dizziness and falling, it may be time to seek help. Falls and injury can be prevented with proper treatment, so talk to your healthcare provider for more information.
Priti Shah, MPT, is a physical therapist at Mount Nittany Medical Center.