Written by Erica Gasmo, B.Sc.(Kin), B.Sc.(P.T.)
1 in 3 seniors will experience a fall each year.
Your sense of balance is determined by a constant interplay between the brain and input it receives from a number of different senses, including your eyes, inner ear (vestibular system) and the receptors in your joints (especially those in your neck and feet.) Injury or disease to any of these regions can disrupt this complicated system and cause a feeling of dizziness.
Dizziness is a bit of a catch-all term that describes any sort of imbalance or unsteadiness, and can include vertigo, sensation of turning or spinning, imbalance, general unsteadiness, or even a feeling of fainting.
Vertigo itself is a specific type of dizziness that describes a quick turning (either yourself or your environment) sensation. This can be episodic (short periods at a time) or long lasting, depending on the cause. These are typically caused by problems in the vestibular (inner ear) system. Most commonly, the episodic vertigo is caused by small particles that have migrated within the enclosed fluid-filled system of your inner ear, and end up sending abnormal signals back to the brain, making the eyes have to make rapid movements to try to figure out which way is up. This ends up making the world or yourself feel as though they are spinning or moving as these rapid eye movements continue to jump and turn (nystagmus.) For longer lasting vertigo, sometimes an infection or more serious injury to the inner ear is causing the issue, and often needs medical attention. Afterwards, your balance system may need to be retrained to regain its function.
A sense of imbalance, or disequilibrium, is often felt like being unstable, floating, or falling back. This can be caused by the flu, an infection in the inner ear, troubles with the joints in the neck or feet, or sometimes neurological problems. True fainting is a loss of consciousness. Near fainting is a feeling of extreme light-headedness, and a feeling like you are falling. This can be from a reduced blood flow to the brain, and could be caused by sudden blood pressure changes, heart attack, blood flow restriction, medication or anxiety.
Balance is just like anything else; if you don’t use it, you lose it. As we age, activity levels can change, and if we do not challenge our balance system as much, it can suffer as a result. Often joint and muscle changes also will contribute to altered information being sent into the balance centre. A regular exercise program that includes balance exercises, eye coordination exercises, lower body strength and coordination, and different positions of the head in space can maintain the health of our complex balance system. The more you practice, the better equipped your body is to interpret the information and keep you feeling steady. Studies have shown that balance training with a physiotherapist can improve quality of life, physical function, strength, balance, social interaction and overall wellbeing.
Whether you are experiencing new dizziness, or long-standing unsteadiness, there is most often something you can do to improve, which can lead to an improved quality of life, improved safety and improved independence. If you experience dizziness or balance issues, consult a specially trained physiotherapist for an assessment. The better you can understand WHY you are dizzy or unbalanced, the better you can take steps to make it BETTER! Physical therapy is typically covered by group health insurance, and although a referral is not required for care, some insurance companies do require a referral for coverage. Please enquire to your insurance provider for details.
Read more: 5 Tips to Help Prevent Falls