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
Our spinal columns are made of twenty four vertebrae stacked one above another on the pelvis. They are joined together at the front by discs and at the back by facet joints. When we bend forward, the vertebra above tilts and slides forward, compressing the disc and stretching the facet joints at the back of the vertebrae. When we bend backward, the disc compression is reduced at the front and the facet joints are compressed at the back. In the upper neck and thoracic areas we tend to have more facet joint strains and in the lower cervical spine and lumbar spine areas, disc injuries are more frequent. This is because our upper spine joints allow us to turn our heads to see, hear and smell, so they need mobility but do not support much weight. Our lumbar spine bears around half our body weight and as we move and sit, there are huge, sustained, compressive loads on our discs.
CAUSES OF BACK PAIN
Disc injuries are the most common cause of low back pain and can range in severity from a mild intermittent ache, to a severe pain where people cannot move. Disc injuries occur mainly during sudden loading such as when lifting, or during repetitive or prolonged bending forces such as when slouching, rowing, hockey and while cycling. They are often aggravated by coughing and running. A flexed posture during slouching, bending or lifting is a frequent cause of disc damage because of the huge leverage and compression forces caused by gravity pulling down on the mass of the upper body.
It is important to understand that damage from small disc injuries is cumulative if discs are damaged at a faster rate than they can heal and the damage will eventually increase until it becomes painful. Pain sensing nerves are only on the outside of the disc, so by the time there is even small pain of disc origin, the disc is already significantly damaged internally where there are no nerve endings to feel pain with.
There may be a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area has become inflamed, perhaps was rested or treated, settled for a while but as the underlying problem was not fixed, the pain has flared up repeatedly since. This type of disc injury responds very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
A marked disc injury causes the outer disc to bulge, stretching the outer disc nerves. In a more serious injury, the central disc gel known as the nucleus, can break through the outer disc and is known as a disc bulge, prolapse or extrusion.
Spinal muscles are often blamed as the cause of spinal pain but this is rarely the cause of the pain. Muscle pain may develop as the muscles contract to prevent further damage as they protect the primary underlying painful structures. This muscle pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will often come back, as the muscles resume their protective bracing. Treatment must improve the structure and function in the tissues which the muscles are trying to protect. The most common sources of primary pain are the discs, facet joints and their ligaments.
There are four facet joints at the back of each vertebra, two attaching to the vertebra above and two attaching to the vertebra below. A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain and the joints can be strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged and will then produce pain.
Facet joint sprains can occur during excessive bending but typically occur with backward, lifting or twisting movements. Trauma such as during a car accident or during repetitive or prolonged forces such as when slouching or bowling at cricket.
There are many other sources of back pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will examine your back and advise you should further investigation be necessary.
SYMPTOMS OF BACK PAIN
Symptoms of structural back pain are always affected by movement. This is important to understand. Symptoms, usually pain but perhaps tingling and pins and needles, are often intense and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other conditions which can produce back pain such as abdominal problems, ovarian cysts and intestinal issues. If you have symptoms in these areas which are not affected by movement, you must consult with your doctor. If you have chest, jaw or upper limb pain which is unaffected by movement, you must attend your doctor or hospital immediately.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our positions and movements. More minor problems produce central low back pain. With more damage, the pain may spread to both sides and with nerve irritation, the pain may spread down into the thigh or leg. As a general rule, disc pain is worse with bending, lifting and slouching and facet joint strains are worse twisting and bending backward or sideways. A severe disc problem is often worse with coughing or sneezing and on waking in the morning.
DIAGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Diagnosis of back injuries is complex and requires a full understanding of the onset history and a comprehensive physical examination. It is important for your Physiotherapist to establish a specific and accurate diagnosis to direct the choice of treatment. In some cases, the pain may arise from several tissues known as co-existing pathologies and each of these are treated as they are identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or the management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
UPPER BACK AND LOWER BACK PAIN RELIEF
Eighty percent of adults will experience severe spinal pain at some time in their life. Much of this pain is called non-specific low back pain and is treated with generic non-specific treatment. This type of treatment often fails to provide lasting relief. However, Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed specific diagnostic skills and specific treatment techniques, targeted to specific structures. We identify the structure and cause of the pain producing damage and develop specific advice and strategies to prevent further damage and promote healing.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education. As normal tissue structure and function returns, there is a reduction in the inflammation and the pain will subside.
When normal movement has been achieved, the inflammation has settled and the structures have healed, your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the problem recurring. We use this specific approach to reduce or stop chronic pain.
While we have the choice to manipulate, adjust or click joints, patients with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeating these techniques. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost, as the elastic tissues tighten and shorten again. Adjustments of this type have little long term benefit and often lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safer and more appropriate treatment for you.
PROGNOSIS OF BACK PAIN
Physiotherapy for back pain can provide outstanding results but it is a process, not magic. The damage which produces pain in a back takes time to develop and also time to repair and heal. You will understand there are often several interacting factors to deal with and patient compliance is necessary.
“Tension headaches” are often talked about and we see a lot of patients with these headaches. In our diagnosis of these conditions, about eighty five percent of all headaches arise from the neck, or cervical spine, which refers pain into the head through the nerves which go to both areas. Neck problems cause head pain because some of the nerves which come from the spinal cord have branches which go to the upper neck joints and other branches which spread over the back of the head, with still others going to the front of the head. When one area is sore the brain interprets the pain as coming from all the areas the nerve branches go to.
CAUSES OF TENSION HEADACHES
Patients who have “Tension Headaches” or “stress headaches’’, are often very busy and have work related problems, a tough boss, urgent deadlines, problems with managing work flow and they often have trouble sleeping because of work problems and their worries. This causes the patient to be mentally and emotionally stressed and their relationships at work and with their families suffer.
They develop a headache which they cannot shake and they feel helpless, tired, tense, anxious and in pain. We have seen many cases where the headaches have continued for weeks and frequently kept recurring, sometimes over many years.
It is important to understand that a Tension Headache is due to “physical tension” in the tissues, often from a poor working position and the damage it has caused, not the other mental “tensions” listed above. Once full neck movement has been restored with treatment, the tissues have healed and the postural strains have been removed, patients often cope better with the other aspects of their lives. This is where Physiotherapy can help by breaking the vicious “Physical Tension” cycle. It is better to think of these as “structural headaches”.
Our neck is made of seven vertebrae stacked one above another. They support the head and they are joined together at the front by discs and at the back by facet joints. When we bend forward, the vertebra above tilts and slides forward, compressing the disc and stretching the facet joints which join the back of the vertebrae. When we bend backward, the disc compression is reduced at the front and the facet joints are compressed at the back. The junction of the first vertebra and the head does not have a disc and the joints there are particularly susceptible to leaning forward which causes the weight of the head to strain the joints, ligaments and muscles as gravity causes a shearing force as the head slides downward.
The neck muscles are often blamed as the cause of pain but this is rarely the whole story. Muscle pain often develops as the muscles contract to prevent further damage, as they protect the primary underlying structures. This pain is secondary to the underlying pathology and when the muscles are massaged, given acupuncture, etc, there is temporary relief but the pain will always comes back as the muscles resume their protective bracing. The most common sources of primary pain are the facet joints and their ligaments in the upper neck and the discs in the lower levels of the neck.
A facet joint strain is much like an ankle sprain, strained by excessive stretching or compressive forces. The joint ligaments, joint lining and even the joint surfaces can be damaged.
In the upper neck, facet joint strains typically occur during excessive bending or twisting movements and may follow trauma such as a car accident causing whiplash but generally, Tension Headaches occur with prolonged forces such as slouching, keying and reading.
There is often a previous history of pain coming and going as the damaged area became inflamed, was treated and settled for a while but as the underlying problem still remained, the pain flared up repeatedly every time it was strained. This type of injury, although often chronic, responds very well to specific Physiotherapy treatment.
There are many other sources of headaches and neck pain including arthritis, crush fractures and various disease processes. Your Physiotherapist will advise you should a more serious condition be suspected.
SYMPTOMS OF TENSION HEADACHES
Symptoms of “Tension Headaches” arising in the neck, are always affected by movement of the head and neck. This is important to understand. Symptoms are sometimes severe and may be sudden in onset but also may be mild and of gradual onset. There are other serious conditions which can produce headaches. If you have severe headache symptoms which are not affected by movement and a recent history of fever or nausea, you must consult a doctor urgently.
Facet joints, discs, muscles and other structures are affected by our neck positions and movements and when damaged, will respond very well to Physiotherapy treatment.
DIAGNOSIS OF TENSION HEADACHES
“Tension Headaches” often appear complex and require a full understanding of the history and a comprehensive physical examination. It is important for your Physiotherapist to establish a specific and accurate diagnosis to direct the choice of treatment. In some cases, the pain may arise from several tissues and these coexisting pathologies are treated individually as each is identified. Where the Physiotherapist requires further information or management may require injections or surgery, the appropriate x-rays, scans and a referral will be arranged.
TENSION HEADACHE RELIEF
Some of these cases will temporarily respond to a general non-specific treatment such as bed rest, ice and anti-inflammatories, however Musculoskeletal Physiotherapists have developed diagnostic skills and treatment techniques, targeted to stopping “Tension Headaches”. We will identify the reasons for the development of the pain and advise strategies to promote healing and to prevent further damage.
Specific techniques are chosen to correct the structural and mechanical problems. Among many choices, treatment may include joint mobilisation, stretching, ice, strengthening and education.
When normal function has been achieved, the inflammation and pain has settled and the structures have healed, using your new strategies will reduce the possibility of the headaches ever recurring. We use this approach to reduce or stop chronic pain. While we have the choice to manipulate or “click” joints, those with ongoing pain will seldom benefit from repeated “adjustment”. This is because our tissues are elastic and the benefit of the quick stretch of manipulation is lost as the tissues tighten up again. Potentially dangerous “adjustments” of this type have little long term benefit and can lead to an unhealthy dependence on the provider. Your Physiotherapist will choose a safe and appropriate treatment for you.
PROGNOSIS OF TENSION HEADACHES
Physiotherapy for “Tension Headaches” can provide outstanding results but it is a process, not magic. The damage which produces “Tension Headaches” takes time to develop and time to repair and heal. You will understand there are often several interacting factors to deal with and your compliance is necessary.
Millions of people take opioids for chronic back pain, but many of them get limited relief while experiencing side effects and worrying about the stigma associated with taking them.
More than 100 million people in the United States suffer from chronic pain, and those with chronic low back pain are more likely than patients with other types of pain to be prescribed opioids. Unfortunately, these medications are addictive and can cause side effects, ranging from drowsiness to breathing problems.
“Patients are increasingly aware that opioids are problematic, but don’t know there are alternative treatment options,” said Asokumar Buvanendran, M.D., lead author of the study, director of orthopedic anesthesia and vice chair for research at Rush University, Chicago, and vice chair of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Committee on Pain Medicine. “While some patients may benefit from opioids for severe pain for a few days after an injury, physicians need to wean their patients off them and use multi-modal therapies instead.”
In the study, 2,030 people with low back pain completed a survey about treatment. Nearly half (941) were currently taking opioids. When asked how successful the opioids were at relieving their pain, only 13 percent said “very successful.” The most common answer — given by 44 percent — was “somewhat successful” and 31 percent said “moderately successful.” Twelve percent said “not successful.”
Seventy-five percent said they experienced side effects including constipation (65 percent), sleepiness (37 percent), cognitive issues (32 percent) and dependence (29 percent).
Respondents also had concerns about the stigma associated with taking opioids. Forty-one percent said they felt judged by using opioids. While 68 percent of the patients had also been treated with antidepressants, only 19 percent felt a stigma from using those.
A major pharmaceutical company recently agreed to disclose in its promotional material that narcotic painkillers carry serious risk of addiction and not to promote opioids for unapproved, “off-label” uses such as long-term back pain. Researchers also note a lack of solid studies on the effectiveness of opioids in treating back pain beyond 12 weeks.
Patients with chronic low back pain, persistent pain lasting more than three months, should see a pain medicine specialist who uses an approach that combines a variety of treatments that may be more beneficial, said Dr. Buvanendran. These treatments include physical therapy, bracing, interventional procedures such as nerve blocks, nerve ablation techniques or implantable devices, other medications such as anti-inflammatories and alternative therapies such as biofeedback and massage, he said.
American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). “Many back pain patients get limited relief from opioids and worry about taking them, survey shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 October 2016.