Dizziness, also called vertigo, is the second most common medical complaint. According to the National Institutes of Health, dizziness strikes 70 percent of Americans at some point in their lives – as many as 90 million people. These conditions are particularly prevalent in older Americans.
The best way to prevent dizziness is to find out why you’re dizzy.
In addition to restricting people’s ability to move about freely, balance and dizziness disorders can deeply affect their psychosocial wellbeing: 50 percent of people who visit a doctor for dizziness have a psychological disorder, such as anxiety and depression, that’s either caused or exacerbated by their balance issue.
Dizziness can be fleeting or chronic. Acute attacks of dizziness, vertigo or a general loss of balance may last a few seconds or a few hours. However, some may feel a chronic, persistent sense of imbalance, unsteadiness or a loss of sure-footedness. These conditions can make people feel disoriented, experience blurred vision and/or nausea and cause a variety of other problems.
Though fairly common, these symptoms can be signs of an underlying condition, which if left untreated can impact quality of life and increase the risk of crippling falls.
Although you may feel helpless when you’re hit with a dizzy spell, there are many ways to address these balance problems. Diagnostic and treatment options have improved tremendously over the last decade, making dizziness a much easier problem to solve.
Dizziness and Vertigo
Dizziness, which is defined as impaired spatial perception and stability, can refer to vertigo, presyncope (mild lightheadedness – syncope means fainting) or disequilibrium. Vertigo is a medical condition, during which people feel as if they, or objects around them, are moving when they are not. People generally feel a spinning or swaying sensation.
Vertigo attacks may last for seconds or hours. The issue may come and go after several weeks or become an ongoing problem. In addition, people who suffer from ongoing vertigo may be in danger of harming themselves or others, making treatment a necessity.
Keys to Balance
To maintain balance, the brain takes input from the inner ear, eyes, and other parts of the body. The goal is to fix where the body is in relation to other objects. The brain interprets this information to determine what movements you should make based on your environment. Your surroundings may be in flux, and the brain compensates.
Each piece of this process is like a link in a chain. As long as all the links work well, the chain maintains its integrity. However, if any single component in this complicated system malfunctions, it can cause dizziness or other problems.
As often happens, aging can affect some of these links. Sometimes the inner ear, which plays a crucial role in balance, is the main culprit. Some patient can get a condition called BPPV, in which calcium begins to deposit in the inner ear. Another common balance disorder, Meniere’s disease, can be caused by fluid buildup. Balance issues can also be caused by change in blood pressure and other vascular problems, infections, head injuries, medications and even migraines.
There is Help
Vertigo and other balance issues may require help from different specialists. Audiologists, Otolaryngologists, , neurologists, physical therapists, ophthalmologists general practitioners, internists, and others are often part of the care team.
Treatments can vary, depending on what’s causing the condition. Vestibular therapy uses different exercises to strengthen the inner ear and help patients recover their balance. Patients learn to reduce their dizziness and generally improve their balance. There are also a variety of medications that can help. In extreme cases, surgery might be indicated.
Audiologists can play a significant role in helping patients overcome their balance disorders. Over the past few years, audiology has evolved into an interventional practice. We are now equipped with more tools to successfully evaluate and help manage balance disorders. Combined with a complete medical history, these diagnostics can identify the root cause of the dizziness and help determine next steps.
My first approach as the Director of Audiology Associates in Santa Rosa is to conduct a series of diagnostic tests, which can help determine whether a patient can benefit from vestibular therapy or vestibular rehabilitation or other treatments. This suite of tests can help identify what is causing the problem – which link in the chain is being affected. In addition, because the biological systems controlling balance are complex, you may undergo a number of different medical tests.
Here are a few examples of different balance-related audiologic diagnostics. Audiologic testing checks for hearing loss. Auditory brainstem response looks at the nerve that takes signals from the inner ear to the brain. Tympanometry looks at whether there might be fluid in the ear and the integrity of the VII and VIII nerve Otoacoustic emissions or (OAEs) are acoustic signals generated by the inner ear, or cochlea. There are several others – each one designed to look at a specific part of our balance biology.
Balance disorders are complicated, but with the right tools we can help with the diagnoses and the causes of the balance disorder and assist with a comprehensive treatment plan to manage them. The important thing is to get in to see your doctor so the process can begin. Remember, feeling dizzy and losing your balance can be quite dangerous. If you have a balance issue, make an appointment now.