By Vanessa Service, Physiotherapist
What does my vestibular system do?
Your vestibular system’s job is to process sensory information that is required to control balance and eye movements. This means that information from the inner ear, the visual system, and from the muscles and joints is analysed by the brain. Integrating this information allows you to1:
– Maintain clear sight while you move your head,
– Figure out the orientation of your head in space in relation to gravity,
– Identify how fast and in which direction your are moving, and
– Make fast and automatic adjustments to your posture so you can maintain balance (stay in your desired position).
In other words, your vestibular system coordinates your movement with your balance, allowing you to navigate through and adapt to the world. It is this process that allows you to walk down the sidewalk, to step off a curb, to sit down and stand up again and to turn your head while walking. Anytime your head moves through space you’re depending on your vestibular system.
What are vestibular disorders and what are the symptoms?
If the vestibular system encounters disease or injury, such as a viral infection or head trauma, the result may be a vestibular disorder. However, aging, some medications, and genetic or environmental factors may also cause vestibular conditions.
Symptoms of damage to the vestibular system may include:
– Vertigo (a sense of the world spinning around you)
– Dizziness (feeling lightheaded or floating/rocking in space)
– Imbalance and special disorientation (stumbling, staggering, drifting to one side while walking)
– Difficulty with changes in walking surfaces
– Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears)
– Discomfort in busy visual environments (such as the grocery store) or when looking at screens/television
Examples of vestibular disorders include:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo or BPPV (a common condition where loose debris or “crystals” collect in a part of the inner ear)
- Vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis.
- Migraine associated vertigo
- Endolymphatic hydrops
- Acoustic neuroma
- Meniere’s disease
How can a vestibular physiotherapist help?
The effect of a vestibular condition on a person’s life can be profound. Dizziness and balance problems are often a barrier to activities of daily living, to independence, and to engaging with the community. This negative impact on daily function and socialization may also contribute to anxiety and depression. As such, appropriate management of vestibular conditions is an essential component to improving quality of life for individuals and families affected by vestibular disorders.
A vestibular therapist will interview you about the history of your symptoms and perform a series of vestibular, balance, and visual tests. Treatment will depend on what is found in the assessment. For example, if you are diagnosed with BPPV, your therapist will perform a manoeuvre to reposition the associated crystals. Other vestibular disorders are treated with specific exercises and strategies that your vestibular therapist will teach you and help you progress through to reach your specific goals.
Although for most people a vestibular disorder is permanent, an exercise based plan can be designed to reduce dizziness, vertigo, and balance and gaze stability problems1. This is made possible by your brain’s incredible ability to adapt its other systems in order to effectively compensate for an improperly functioning vestibular system. Vestibular rehabilitation is a non-invasive and drug free intervention that helps to promote and maximize the amount of compensation that occurs. Current research supports the use of vestibular rehabilitation in the management of vestibular conditions2, demonstrating reduced dizziness, balance issues, and increased independence with regard to activities of daily living 3. Additionally, no adverse effects associated with vestibular rehabilitation have been reported2. As such, vestibular rehabilitation can provide a pathway to improved quality of life for those living with a vestibular condition.
1. About Vestibular Disorders (n.d) Retrieved from https://vestibular.org/understanding-vestibular-disorder
2. Hillier SL et al., Vestibular rehabilitation for unilateral peripheral vestibular dysfunction, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 3, 2011.
3. Cohen HS, Kimball KT Increased independence and decreased vertigo after vestibular rehabilitation. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2003 Jan;128(1):60-70
A blog by Amy Mathews Amos- See below
My symptoms started in January 2008, with deep pain in my bladder and the sense that I had to urinate constantly. I was given a diagnosis of interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder condition with no known cure. But in the following months, pain spread to my thighs, knees, hips, buttocks, abdomen and back. By the time my condition was properly diagnosed three years later, I had seen two urogynecologists, three orthopedists, six physical therapists, two manual therapists, a rheumatologist, a neurologist, a chiropractor and a homeopath.
What was wrong? Something completely unexpected, given my symptoms: myofascial pain syndrome, a condition caused by muscle fibers that contract but don’t release. That constant contraction creates knots of taut muscle, or trigger points, that send pain throughout the body, even to parts that are perfectly healthy. Most doctors have never heard of myofascial pain syndrome and few know how to treat it.
In my case, trigger points in my pelvic floor — the bowl of muscle on the bottom of the pelvis — referred pain to my bladder. Points along my thighs pulled on my knee joints, creating sharp pain when I walked. Points in my hips, buttocks and abdomen threw my pelvis and lower spine out of alignment, pushing even more pain up my back. The pain was so severe at times that I could sit for only brief periods.
“Why didn’t anybody know this?” I asked my doctor, Timothy Taylor, soon after he correctly diagnosed the reason for my pain. “Because doctors don’t specialize in muscles,” he said. “It’s the forgotten organ.”
‘There’s no wire’
Most medical schools and physical therapy programs lack instruction in myofascial pain, in part because it involves referred pain, according to Robert Gerwin, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University. Gerwin, who is also president of Pain and Rehabilitation Medicine in Bethesda, says that medicine has only recently come to understand this type of pain.
“I remember a long conversation with a neurosurgeon saying that [referred] pain is impossible because there’s no connection, there’s no wire, no string, no blood vessel, there’s no nerve, there’s no nothing connecting these two places,” Gerwin said. Of course, the surgeon was “not realizing that the mechanism of spread is through the spinal cord.”
Pain signals from taut muscle fibers travel to specific locations on the spinal cord that also receive signals from other parts of the body. Referred pain occurs when pain signals from muscles register in the nervous system as if they came from elsewhere.
Although physicians increasingly recognize referred pain today, diagnosis and treatment of myofascial pain often takes more time than most physicians can provide, according to Taylor. Practitioners need specific training to recognize trigger points. And they must examine and palpate patients carefully to identify and locate these taut bands of muscle fiber.
In a 2000 survey, more than 88 percent of pain specialists agreed that myofascial pain syndrome was a legitimate diagnosis, but they differed over the criteria for diagnosing it.
Norman Harden, the medical director of the Center for Pain Studies at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, conducted that survey. He believes that practitioners need clear, validated criteria for diagnosing myofascial pain and identifying effective treatments. He recently conducted another survey to determine if the level of recognition among pain specialists has changed. Preliminary results suggest it has not.
According to Gerwin, myofascial trigger points often cause or contribute to problems such as chronic back pain, headaches and pelvic pain. Trigger points can form anywhere in the body after an injury or if muscles brace against pain or trauma for a long period. They also can result from chronic overuse of muscles due to stress or to poor posture that puts constant pressure on muscles not designed to withstand it.
Taylor understands this as both a physician and a patient. His myofascial pain started in 2003 during his daily run. “I felt a sharp pain in my rear that felt just like when my brothers used to shoot me with our BB gun,” he recalled. He checked himself for signs of injury but found none, then limped home, assuming it was a strained muscle that would heal after a few days. It didn’t.
He sought treatment first from his general practitioner. He then went to a battery of specialists: neurologists, rheumatologists, orthopedic surgeons, osteopathic physicians, physical medicine and rehabilitation specialists, and physical therapists.
Found it on the Internet
After three years, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist told him the source of his pain was his piriformis muscle, a pear-shaped muscle that runs diagonally across the buttocks. The doctor prescribed stretching and strengthening exercises to resolve it, but they only made things worse. Eventually, the pain reached down to Taylor’s knees, up to his head and out to his fingers on both sides of his body.
But he finally had a useful piece of information. He did an Internet search for “piriformis muscle” — a common spot for trigger points — and “myofascial pain syndrome” popped up. “I had been to the bone doctor and the joint doctor and the nerve doctor and the rehab doctor, and none of them had really examined my muscles in great detail,” he said. And none of them identified trigger points. Taylor has since changed his focus from radiology to working toward understanding, diagnosing and treating the condition. When I met him in 2011 he had established a practice that specializes in pain syndromes.
A popular treatment is dry needling, which sounds like exactly what it is: Tiny needles are inserted into the skin to stimulate a twitch response in the heart of a trigger point, releasing it. Although similar to acupuncture, dry needling focuses directly on trigger points rather than on the meridians, or energy fields, recognized by Chinese medicine. Usually, each trigger point requires several treatments before it relaxes substantially. Between sessions, patients treat themselves each day by pressing the points against a hard surface with simple tools such as tennis balls and holding for a minute or two. Treatment also addresses posture-related strains on muscles and metabolic factors such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies, low thyroid and hormonal imbalances that can contribute to trigger points.
Though a few studies have been done, they have not adequately demonstrated the effectiveness of treatments for trigger points, according to a 2009 review published in the European Journal of Pain. Researchers at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth and the British Medical Acupuncture Society reported that only one of the seven studies they reviewed found dry needling to be effective in reducing pain. Four other studies found no difference between dry needling and placebo treatment, and the two remaining studies had contradictory results.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists recognizes dry needling as a legitimate treatment. The group maintains that research shows that dry needling reduces pain and muscle tension and helps muscles with trigger points return to normal. Other studies are underway. Jay Shah of the National Institutes of Health and Lynn Gerber and Siddartha Sikdar of George Mason University are using ultrasound imaging to examine how dry needling changes the physiology of trigger points after treatment.
Gerwin says that proper training in finding the trigger points can lead to consistency in diagnosing them. He and physical therapist Jan Dommerholt of Bethesda Physiocare run Myopain Seminars, which help physicians and physical therapists learn how to diagnose and treat trigger points.
According to Harden at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, without clearer diagnostic criteria accessible to general practitioners, experiences like mine will continue. “As awareness grows and doctors feel empowered to understand and make this diagnosis, then that endless and frustrating round of trying to find what I’ve got and what the answer is will stop,” he said.
Gerwin agrees that more research will help, but already he sees greater acceptance of trigger points in the medical community.
“I think the bottom line is simply that the
underlying pain physiology is understood now to explain why referred pain occurs, to understand why tenderness occurs,” he said. “And that explains a lot of what muscle pain is all about.”
In my case, through a combination of therapies, including dry needling, compression, stretching, postural changes and relaxation techniques, I feel much better. I no longer need dry needling, but I do need to practice the other techniques myself, regularly, to prevent trigger points from reforming or to release them myself when they do form.
Amy Mathews Amos, a science writer in Shepherdstown, W.V., blogs at amymathewsamos.com.
People who exercise have better mental fitness, and a new imaging study from UC Davis Health System shows why. Intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters — glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA — that are responsible for chemical messaging within the brain.
Published in this week’s issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the finding offers new insights into brain metabolism and why exercise could become an important part of treating depression and other neuropsychiatric disorders linked with deficiencies in neurotransmitters, which drive communications between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health.
“Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored,” said study lead author Richard Maddock, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.”
The research also helps solve a persistent question about the brain, an energy-intensive organ that consumes a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbohydrates during exercise. What does it do with that extra fuel?
“From a metabolic standpoint, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess, but nobody knows what happens with all that energy,” Maddock said. “Apparently, one of the things it’s doing is making more neurotransmitters.”
The striking change in how the brain uses fuel during exercise has largely been overlooked in brain health research. While the new findings account for a small part of the brain’s energy consumption during exercise, they are an important step toward understanding the complexity of brain metabolism. The research also hints at the negative impact sedentary lifestyles might have on brain function, along with the role the brain might play in athletic endurance.
“It is not clear what causes people to ‘hit the wall’ or get suddenly fatigued when exercising,” Maddock said. “We often think of this point in terms of muscles being depleted of oxygen and energy molecules. But part of it may be that the brain has reached its limit.”
To understand how exercise affects the brain, the team studied 38 healthy volunteers. Participants exercised on a stationary bicycle, reaching around 85 percent of their predicted maximum heart rate. To measure glutamate and GABA, the researchers conducted a series of imaging studies using a powerful 3-tesla MRI to detect nuclear magnetic resonance spectra, which can identify several compounds based on the magnetic behavior of hydrogen atoms in molecules.
The researchers measured GABA and glutamate levels in two different parts of the brain immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20 minutes, and made similar measurements for a control group that did not exercise. Glutamate or GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised, but not among the non-exercisers. Significant increases were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions and emotion. While these gains trailed off over time, there was some evidence of longer-lasting effects.
“There was a correlation between the resting levels of glutamate in the brain and how much people exercised during the preceding week,” Maddock said. “It’s preliminary information, but it’s very encouraging.”
These findings point to the possibility that exercise could be used as an alternative therapy for depression. This could be especially important for patients under age 25, who sometimes have more side effects from selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), anti-depressant medications that adjust neurotransmitter levels.
For follow-up studies, Maddock and the team hope to test whether a less-intense activity, such as walking, offers similar brain benefits. They would also like to use their exercise-plus-imaging method on a study of patients with depression to determine the types of exercise that offer the greatest benefit.
“We are offering another view on why regular physical activity may be important to prevent or treat depression,” Maddock said. “Not every depressed person who exercises will improve, but many will. It’s possible that we can help identify the patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription.”
Feeling dizzy? You Could Have a Vestibular Disorder
Do you experience dizziness? Perhaps when rolling into or over in bed, or turning your head to one side?
Dizziness can be more than dehydration, a big night out, or a compulsion to spin in circles on your office chair. It can be a symptom of asymmetry in your body’s sensory systems.
The most common condition that causes dizziness is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. The brain has three main mechanisms for perceiving how we interact with the environment around us. These are the visual, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems.
The visual system is self-explanatory. The proprioceptive system is a network of nerves in all of your muscles and joints that relay information about the position of those muscles and joints back to the brain. It is how you can close your eyes and still accurately position your arms and legs in different poses.
The vestibular system is located in your inner ear and is used to identify the position and movement of the head in space. This is the system commonly linked to dizziness and vertigo.
The vestibular system is made up of three perpendicular fluid filled canals in each ear, which relate roughly to the planes of movement.
These canals each have sensory nerves at one end that are made up of crystals resting on fine hairs. When you turn your head, the fluid moves through the canals and pushes on the crystals. This causes the hairs to move and stimulates the nerves.
Your response in each ear should be equal and opposite, and work in tandem with your visual and proprioceptive systems. If things are not working in tandem, then dizziness, vertigo (room spinning), or nausea may result.
Have you ever felt nauseated in a car, or on a boat? This is because your vestibular system recognises that your head is moving but according to your eyes, you are still or moving a different way.
Someone may have suggested looking out the window or finding the horizon. This is great advice as fixating on something which the car or boat is moving relative to, provides a visual reference point and reduces or eliminates the disagreement between the visual and vestibular system.
In patients suffering BPPV, a similar disagreement occurs but it is completely internal. It occurs when crystals in one ear canal become dislodged from the hairs and drift down into the canal. This can happen as a result of trauma but is just as frequently unrelated to any incident.
When the head is turned, the nerve stimulation in one ear is different to the other and a combination of dizziness, vertigo, and nausea can result.
Generally, this resolves in seconds, or in more severe cases last up to two minutes. Usually only one canal will be affected at a time so symptoms are commonly worse to one side, and occur most severely in a single plane of movement.
If you are dizzy due to asymmetry, then your physiotherapist can assess and treat it. Assessment of specific movements can isolate which ear and which canal is causing the problem and treatment involves techniques designed to use gravity and inertia to relocate the crystals back to where they belong at the end of the canal.
NOTE: If you are suffering from severe, sudden onset headache, or persistent dizziness, double vision or nausea that seem unrelated to any particular movement then consult a medical doctor immediately.