By Lauren Fournier, DPT
Imagine one morning getting out of bed and suddenly your entire world is spinning, and you feel like you’re going to be sick or even fall over! Or imagine falling while walking in your yard and breaking a bone or hitting your head! For most people this is frightening.
Balance problems, whether due to vestibular disorders (i.e., dizziness or vertigo due to inner ear dysfunction) or not, affect individuals not only physically, but psychologically. The physical symptoms of, and your psychological reaction to, these problems can vary widely and the latter can often trigger and/or exacerbate your physical symptoms.
When the fall is vestibular-related, the sudden onset, unpredictability, and variability of symptoms range from unsettling to terrifying and turn your world upside down…literally and figuratively. Being afraid of, or actually suffering, a significant injury from a fall or falling frequently often causes people to limit their activities and social engagements leading to isolation, depression or feelings of helplessness.
Further aggravating matters, most of the time people with vestibular disorders don’t look sick or unwell and, unlike a broken limb, the source can’t be seen making it difficult to understand. Those with balance problems often describe “the invisibility of their illness” leading to them being misperceived as lazy or drunk and additionally withdrawing from social settings. However, invisible does not mean imaginary.
Similarly, when falling occurs due to general deconditioning there appears to be no true cause, when in fact there is usually a gradual decline that most people don’t realize until after they have their first serious fall-related injury.
A quick test you can do at home to see if you’re at risk for falls is to line your feet up heel-to-toe like in the picture. Hold this position for at least 10 seconds…if you can’t then you’re at risk. Even if you can hold it, but felt it was more difficult than you expected, odds are that you would benefit from a balance screen.
Regardless of the cause, physical therapy improves the physical and emotional limitations related to balance problems. Benefits of an exercise program include: improved self-rated health, range of motion, and psychological well-being; reduced pain and fatigue; elevated mood; increased physical activity and confidence in your ability to manage your health; and, of course, a decreased fall risk. Don’t let balance problems or the fear associated with them keep you down, physically or psychologically!