If you suffer from the spinning sensation of vertigo, dizziness or a loss of balance due to inner ear problems, a neck injury or other medical conditions, specialized physical therapy may offer just the help you need.
Loss of balance is a common issue that can lead to falling and potentially significant health consequences, particularly for older people. According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, one in every three adults age 65 and older experiences a falling episode, with one in five falls resulting in serious injury.
“Unfortunately, the older we get, the worse our balance becomes,” says Michael Wah, PT, DPT, OCS, founder of Active Life & Sports Physical Therapy, which has three locations in Maryland — including Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s main campus in Towson.
But fortunately there’s hope. “Physical therapists are trained to evaluate the body’s different systems to identify which ones are causing the balance problem,” Wah says. “They can then establish a program that will either help that system improve, or strengthen other systems to compensate for deficits.”
A specialized physical therapy called vestibular rehabilitation helps manage, compensate and correct for dizziness and imbalance. Creating a treatment plan starts with a thorough assessment of the vestibular system (the inner ear’s way of measuring and maintaining balance), along with evaluation of the patient’s vision and joint awareness.
“Frankly, patients with vestibular problems feel miserable,” Wah says. “A precise diagnosis allows the vestibular therapist to rid patients of their symptoms as quickly as possible.”
A specialized therapist with the appropriate testing equipment can quickly determine whether the patient’s symptoms stem from the vestibular system. If so, they can localize the specific part of the system that’s involved. Movements of the eyes, observed with specialized infrared goggles, help physical therapists pinpoint the cause of vertigo and dizziness.
“The assessment of your inner ear is made by observing your eyes and how they react to positional changes of your head and body,” explains Joe Palmer, DPT, OMPT, CSCS, a physical therapist with Active Life & Sports. “A therapist can use positional maneuvers and gaze stabilization exercises to decrease your dizziness and resolve your spinning episodes.
Palmer and Wah see patients referred by primary care physicians, specialists and other physical therapists, as well as by relatives and loved ones who are concerned about their loved one’s risk of falling. Treatment plans are tailored to each patient’s symptoms and needs. A plan might include simple balancing exercises such as weight shifting or head movements that challenge the various parts of the vestibular system.
Therapists at Active Life & Sports use a specialized fall-protection system called Solo-Step, a track that runs along the ceiling with a wire attached to bearings inside. Patients wear a harness attached to the wire, which allows them to walk unassisted, re-establishing confidence and allowing therapists to lead the patients through motion exercises without having to worry about stabilization. Palmer says he’s seen the Solo-Step system help patients transition from a walker to a cane, or from a cane to no assistive device at all.
“Our programs always focus on function,” he explains. “We want to help each patient achieve his or her goals — walking around the local mall without fear of falling, getting down on the floor to play with grandchildren, or ascending and descending stairs at home. Our job is to work with each patient and break down functional goals into attainable steps.”
To that end, Active Life & Sports works closely with GBMC physicians to provide physical therapy services in a convenient community setting.
“Our staff is dedicated and trained to provide not only an excellent patient experience, but also a positive patient outcome,” Palmer says.
—Amy Lynch for Greater Baltimore Medical Center