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.
The Role of Physical Therapy
Physical therapy with a trained professional may be useful if pain has not improved after 3 – 4 weeks. It is important for any person who has chronic low back pain to have an exercise program. Professionals who understand the limitations and special needs of back pain, and can address individual health conditions, should guide this program. One study indicated that patients who planned their own exercise program did worse than those in physical therapy or doctor-directed programs.
Physical therapy typically includes the following:
Education and training the patient in correct movement.
Exercises to help the patient keep the spine in neutral positions during all daily activities.
Incorrect movements or long-term high-impact exercise is often a cause of back pain in the first place. People vulnerable to back pain should avoid activities that put undue stress on the lower back or require sudden twisting movements, such as football, golf, ballet, and weight lifting.
Exercises performed after a simple diskectomy do not seem to provide much added benefit over time.
Specific and regular exercise under the guidance of a trained professional is important for reducing pain and improving function, although patients often find it difficult to maintain therapy.
Exercise and Acute or Subacute Back Pain
Exercise does not help acute back pain. In fact, overexertion may cause further harm. Beginning after 4 – 8 weeks of pain, however, a rehabilitation program may benefit the patient.
An incremental aerobic exercise program (such as walking, stationary biking, and swimming) may begin within 2 weeks of symptoms. Jogging is usually not recommended, at least not until the pain is gone and muscles are stronger.
Patients should avoid exercises that put the lower back under pressure until the back muscles are well toned. Such exercises include leg lifts done in a facedown position, straight leg sit-ups, and leg curls using exercise equipment.
In all cases, patients should never force themselves to exercise if, by doing so, the pain increases.
Exercise and Chronic Back Pain
Exercise plays a very beneficial role in chronic back pain. Repetition is the key to increasing flexibility, building endurance, and strengthening the specific muscles needed to support and neutralize the spine. Exercise should be considered as part of a broader program to return to normal home, work, and social activities. In this way, the positive benefits of exercise not only affect strength and flexibility but also alter and improve patients’ attitudes toward their disability and pain. Exercise may also be effective when combined with a psychological and motivational program, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
There are different types of back pain exercises. Stretching exercises work best for reducing pain, while strengthening exercises are best for improving function.
Exercises for back pain include:
Low Impact Aerobic Exercises. Low-impact aerobic exercises, such as swimming, bicycling, and walking can strengthen muscles in the abdomen and back without over-straining the back. Programs that use strengthening exercises while swimming may be a particularly beneficial approach for many patients with back pain. Medical research has shown that pregnant women who engaged in a water gymnastics program have less back pain and are able to continue working longer.
Spine Stabilization and Strength Training. Exercises called lumbar extension strength training are proving to be effective. Generally, these exercises attempt to strengthen the abdomen, improve lower back mobility, strength, and endurance, and enhance flexibility in the hip, the hamstring muscles, and the tendons at the back of the thigh.
Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung. Practices originating in Asia that combine low-impact physical movements and meditation may be very helpful. They are designed to achieve a physical and mental balance and can be very helpful in preventing recurrences of low back pain.
Flexibility Exercises. Flexibility exercises may help reduce pain. A stretching program may work best when combined with strengthening exercises.
Specific Exercises for Low Back Strength
Perform the following exercises at least three times a week:
Partial Sit-ups. Partial sit-ups or crunches strengthen the abdominal muscles.
Keep the knees bent and the lower back flat on the floor while raising the shoulders up 3 – 6 inches.
Exhale on the way up, and inhale on the way down.
Perform this exercise slowly 8 – 10 times with the arms across the chest.
Pelvic Tilt. The pelvic tilt alleviates tight or fatigued lower back muscles.
Lie on the back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
Tighten the buttocks and abdomen so that they tip up slightly.
Press the lower back to the floor, hold for one second, and then relax.
Be sure to breathe evenly.
Over time increase this exercise until it is held for 5 seconds. Then, extend the legs a little more so that the feet are further away from the body and try it again.
Stretching Lower-Back Muscles. The following are three exercises for stretching the lower back:
Lie on the back with knees bent and legs together. Keeping arms at the sides, slowly roll the knees over to one side until totally relaxed. Hold this position for about 20 seconds (while breathing evenly) and then repeat on the other side.
Lying on the back, hold one knee and pull it gently toward the chest. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat with the other knee.
While supported on hands and knees, lift and straighten right hand and left leg at the same time. Hold for 3 seconds while tightening the abdominal muscles. The back should be straight. Alternate with the other arm and leg and repeat on each side 8 – 20 times.
Note: No one with low back pain should perform exercises that require bending over right after getting up in the morning. At that time, the disks are more fluid-filled and more vulnerable to pressure from this movement.
Some common spinal injuries and conditions we treat:
Acute lower back (lumbar) pain due to spinal disc and/or facet joint injuries
Chronic low back (lumbar) pain
Sciatica – referred pain and symptoms into the lower limb
Pelvic dysfunction syndromes . Often diagnosed in patients who feel ‘out’.
Childbirth related instability and acute pain syndromes of the lower back and pelvis.
Spondylolisthesis (forward slip of one vertebrae on the vertebrae directly below it)
Spondylosis (disc space narrowing combined with degenerative changes in the facet joints common with age)
Acute neck pain due to facet joint and/or spinal disc injury
Chronic neck pain
Brachialgia-referred pain and symptoms into the arm, ‘pinched nerve’ pain and/or pins and needles/numbness (known as paraesthesia)
Mid-back (thoracic) and rib (costovertebral joint) pain (which, in some cases, refer pain around the chest wall)
Acute/chronic (myofascial) trigger point conditions. (These are tender and hypersensitive coin sized zones within the muscle tissue that can cause local pain and tightness and can also refer to distant sites.)
Muscle and joint stiffness
Causes of Spinal Pain
Acute and chronic spinal pain is experienced due to the stimulation, via mechanical or chemical irritation, of small nerve endings, nerve root or spinal cord sheaths, nerve cords, complex pain mechanisms in the central nervous system or a combination of the above.
Acute Spinal Pain
This can involve findings of bulging disc, disc protrusion or disc prolapse/rupture. Disc problems are very common in the lower back (lumbar spine). They are often associated with episodes of bending, bend with twist or prolonged sitting /driving which distorts the rim of the disc causing acute pain. In addition it can produce pressure on the spinal nerves in the lower back which produce symptoms known as sciatica. This is felt as pain, pins and needles sensation, numbness and/or weakness in the leg(s). In the neck (cervical spine), disc injuries can cause debilitating pain into the neck and commonly severe pain into the arm called brachialgia due to compression of the spinal nerves in the neck. This is commonly referred to as ‘pinched nerve’.
These joints are small joints which flank the disc on either side and behind the spinal discs. They are like a finger joint in their structure and when injured swell and inflame and cause acute pain and restriction of movement. They can be sprained in an injury or activities involving twisting, arching and reaching upward movements. In the neck they can become overstrained by an awkward night’s sleep leading to a condition known as ‘Acute Wry Neck’. They can cause local pain and also refer pain to neighbouring and even distant sites.
The joints of the pelvis can suffer acute injuries through high force trauma such as motor vehicle/bicycle accidents, contact sports, slips and falls on to the ground/floor, landing from a height, or when the female pelvis is vulnerable before and after childbirth. Injury and acute instability syndromes can occur which involve the sacroiliac and pubic joints. Lumbo-pelvic dysfunction conditions are common in the sporting population. Muscle imbalance, asymmetrical posture and structural alignment, as well as poor activation and stabilising strength (core control) can create syndromes such as chronic back pain, Osteitis Pubis (OP), recurrent hamstring strains, and contribute to a range of soft tissue injuries/conditions in the lower body.
This refers to the soft tissue layer involving the muscles, tendons and fascial tissues. This can be injured acutely and cause local pain at the site of injury but can also be responsible for ache and pain at distant sites. Myofascial pain is often associated with damage to deeper joint structures, namely disc and facet joints as either a primary (injured tissue) and/or secondary (protective spasm) component of the acute injury.