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
Elite and competitive swimmers log between 60,000 and 80,000 meters weekly — swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool 1,200 times — which places significant stress on their shoulder joints. “The upper body provides 90 percent of the propulsive force to move through the water. Due to the amount of force generated and the range of motion required to swim efficiently, the shoulder needs to have perfect mechanics to avoid injury,” says Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, lead study author of a literature review in the August issue of Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Harvard Medical School.
Swimming is an endurance sport but “swimmer’s shoulder” — a broad non-medical term often used to describe a variety of shoulder injuries — can affect swimmers at all levels. According to the literature review authors, many shoulder injuries are preventable with proper technique, training, stretching, and strengthening.
Shoulder pain affects 40 to 91 percent of competitive swimmers. Overuse and poor shoulder mechanics can cause muscle imbalances, decreased range of motion of the shoulder, and less efficient swim strokes, all placing athletes at greater risk for further injury. The most common swimming-related injuries include:
Impingement — As swimmers becomes fatigued, the pectoralis muscles (commonly known as “pecs”) compensate for tired muscles, which can cause the peak of the shoulder blade to rub (impinge) against the rotator cuff (tendon and bursa), stress the anterior (front of the body) ligaments, and create tears in the tissue that holds the top of the arm bone in place.
Scapular dyskinesis — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade over the chest wall can overstretch and loosen the upper back muscles that keep the shoulder bones in a healthy position. Abnormal shoulder mechanics (scapula dyskinesis) can cause pain near the collarbone when the upper chest muscles tighten to compensate for the loosened upper back muscles.
Glenohumeral internal rotation deficit (GIRD) — Intense, repetitive rotation of the shoulder blade can cause the front shoulder ligaments to overstretch and loosen. This can cause the soft tissues and muscles in the back to tighten to compensate for the loosened front shoulder muscles while limiting the internal rotation of the shoulders, which puts swimmers at greater risk for rotator cuff tears. Swimmers must maintain some shoulder looseness to remain competitive. However, about 20 percent of competitive swimmers have hyperlaxity — the ability of joints to move beyond the normal range of motion — which increases the likelihood of greater shoulder instability and susceptibility to pain.
Possible and often subtle signs of shoulder injuries among swimmers may include:
A dropped elbow during the recovery phase of the freestyle stroke.
Excessive body roll, which may signify shoulder pain.
Drooping of the affected shoulder.
“Injury prevention is best accomplished by proper training. Most importantly, swimmers need to stretch, especially the posterior shoulder capsule, and avoid muscle imbalance by strengthening both the rotator cuff and the scapular stabilizer muscle groups,” says Dr. Matzkin. When a swimmer experiences shoulder pain, a thorough physical examination is important to diagnose the source of the pain, whether there is atrophy in the shoulder or reduced strength in the shoulder joint.
Treatment may include nonsurgical (e.g., a combination of ice, stretching, and anti-inflammatory medication, focused rehabilitation to reduce pain) or surgical (e.g., for structural injuries to manage pain rather than to enhance athletic performance) options to potentially prevent future injuries.
Elizabeth Matzkin, Kaytelin Suslavich, David Wes. Swimmer’s Shoulder. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, 2016; 24 (8): 527 DOI: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-15-00313
Frozen shoulder, correctly known as Adhesive Capsulitis, presents as a combination of shoulder pain and stiffness causing sleep disturbance and marked disability.
In a frozen shoulder the capsule surrounding the shoulder joint is more thickened than normal and it shrinks, adhering to the humerus (arm bone) and itself – hence the name adhesive capsulitis. It is associated with inflammation, causing pain followed by scarring, causing stiffness.
Clinical features of frozen shoulder
Gradual onset of arm pain.
Unable to lie on affected side.
Restriction of movements, usually into elevation and outward rotation.
Diagnosed by a thorough shoulder examination.
X-rays may rule out other causes of shoulder pain but are unable to diagnose a frozen shoulder.
Runs a distinct course which can be broken into 4 phases or simply “pain-predominant” and “stiffness-predominant”.
Phases of frozen shoulder
Phase 1: Usually pain.
Phase 2: Increasing pain and increasing stiffness but still predominantly pain.
Phase 3: Pain abates, leaving stiffness.
Phase 4: Resolution, usually by 2 years.
Who gets frozen shoulder?
Mostly occurs between ages 40 and 60 years.
More common in women and diabetics.
Often appears for no apparent reason but can stem from an injury to the shoulder or following shoulder surgery.
20% of patients will develop it in the other shoulder in the future but almost never occurs again in the same shoulder.
Common shoulder problems
Unable to: Reach above shoulder height
Throw a ball
Quickly reach for something
Reach behind your back e.g. doing up bra, tucking in shirt
Reach out to the side and behind e.g. reaching for seat belt
Sleep on your side
How can physiotherapy help?
Although a frozen shoulder is generally self-limiting, the aim of physiotherapy is to keep the shoulder joint as pain free and mobile as possible. Physiotherapy may also help reduce the time taken to move through each phase.
Phase 1 & 2- pain relieving techniques such as gentle mobilisation, muscle releases, dry needling, taping.
Phase 3- shoulder joint mobilisation and stretches, muscle release techniques, dry needling and exercises to regain range and strength. Treatment should not be too aggressive.
Phase 4- shoulder mobilisation and stretches followed by strength exercises to control and maintain the returning range of movement.
Dry needling involves the application of very fine sterilised acupuncture needles into muscle and surrounding tissues to assist in the release of myofascial trigger points, reduce tightness and spasm, improve muscle function and relieve pain. It is commonly used as an adjunct to physiotherapy and myotherapy techniques to improve treatment outcomes.
There are two types of Dry Needling, the first called Superficial Dry Needling (SDN) works by inserting the needle only 5-10mm under the skin. Secondarily is Deep Dry Needling (DDN) where the needle is inserted to the depth required to penetrate the targeted myofascial trigger point.
How does it work?
Myofascial trigger points are hyper-irritable, taut bands within muscles, which are painful to touch and can contribute to muscle shortening, weakness and pain (both locally and referred). They often develop following muscle, joint or nerve injury and sometimes persist well after the initial tissue injured has healed. This leads to persistent pain and discomfort.
Dry needling releases these trigger points by encouraging local blood flow to the trigger point and by modulating nerve pathways that erroneously cause them to persist. The needling also stimulates your body’s own endorphin system to provide pain relief and help allow the muscle to relax.
Dry needling can be extremely effective in the treatment of:
Needles used in dry needling are much thinner than those you receive when you see your GP for an injection and so usually cause much less discomfort. This does vary depending on what techniques your therapist uses. You may also experience the very satisfying response of the muscle twanging and releasing quickly. A sure sign of a successful trigger point release.
The initial treatment is conservative to determine the patient’s response. This varies from person to person. It is expected that there will be some post treatment soreness during the first 24-48hrs and sometimes minor bruising is experienced.
What sorts of conditions can Dry Needling be beneficial for?
Dry needling can produce excellent results as an adjunct to standard physiotherapy and manual therapy treatment. It can be used in both acute and chronic painful conditions.
Dry needling can be extremely effective in the treatment of:
Back, neck and shoulder pain
Hand and wrist pain
Tendinopathy pathologies i.e. Tennis elbow, Achilles pain
Many other musculoskeletal injuries (You can discuss dry needling with your therapist to see if it may be useful for your condition)
What is the difference between Dry Needling and Acupuncture?
Dry needling revolves around Western Medicine philosophy and involves inserting needles into muscular trigger points palpated by your therapist and consistent with your area of pain.
Acupuncture is based on ancient Eastern Medicine, with needle placement over specific points along meridian lines or ‘energy’ lines which are thought to associate with particular illness and disease.