Balance is defined as a state of equilibrium and it takes a significant amount of work within the body to achieve proper balance. The brain uses inputs from many sources to understand where the body is located in relationship to the world and to allow it to function. Sensory information from the eyes, ears, and position receptors in the rest of the body help keep the body upright and allow it to move in a coordinated fashion. When any part of this complex system breaks down it leaves you feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
Dizziness is a difficult word to understand and can be divided into two categories, either lightheadedness or vertigo. Lightheadedness is the feeling that a person might faint while vertigo is most often described as a spinning sensation with loss of balance and is sometimes accompanied by nausea and vomiting. The direction of care is markedly different since lightheadedness may suggest to the health care practitioner to investigate decreased oxygen or nutrient supply to the brain due a variety of causes including heart rhythm disturbances or dehydration, while vertigo sends the health care practitioner
looking for a neurologic or inner ear cause.
While individuals may use the word dizziness, vertigo symptoms are described by the feeling that either the world is spinning around the person or that the person themselves is spinning. This is the same type of sensation that happens when a person quickly steps off a merry-go-round or when they twirl themselves and then quickly stop. The feeling of spinning may be associated with loss of balance to the point that the person walks unsteadily or falls down. The individual or family member may describe the person walking as if they were drunk. Vertigo itself is a symptom or indicator of an underlying balance problem, either involving the labyrinth of the inner ear or the cerebellum of the brain.
Vertigo is most often associated with an inner ear problem. The inner ear has two parts, the semicircular canals and the vestibule, that helps the body know where it is in relationship to gravity. There are three semicircular canals that are aligned at right angles to each other and act as the gyroscope for the body. The canals are filled with fluid and are lined with a nerve filled, crystal encrusted membrane that transmits information to the cerebellum, the part of the brain that deals with balance and coordination. The cerebellum adds information from sight and from nerve endings in muscles that deal with proprioception, the perception of movement, to help the brain know where it is in relationship to gravity and the world.
Normally, when the head moves, fluid in the semicircular canals shifts and that information is relayed to the brain. When the head stops moving, the fluid stops as well. There may be a slight delay and is the basis for the vertigo experienced after people participate in many children’s games and carnival rides. When a person goes on a merry-go-round or spins quickly around in circles, the fluid in the canals develops momentum and even though the head stops spinning, the fluid may continue to move. This causes vertigo or a spinning sensation and may cause the person to fall or stumble in a crooked line.
Preventing Vertigo & Dizzy Episodes
Balance disorders like vertigo are often unpredictable. Depending on the cause, symptoms may occur at any time, even after long periods without any symptoms. It is important to be cautious in order to avoid accidents that could be caused by any balance disorder.
If you have a tendency to develop vertigo, you can reduce or eliminate the symptoms by doing the following:
• Change your position slowly, especially when going from a lying or sitting position to a standing position.
• When you get out of bed, sit on the side of the bed for a few seconds to gain your orientation and allow your circulatory system to adjust.
• When walking, focus on distant objects. Do not look down at your feet. Avoid walking in dark areas or on unstable ground. Falls at home occur when the floor covering changes from carpet to tile or linoleum.
• When riding in a car, try to sit in the front seat. Look out the window at a fixed point. When going around curves, look at a distant object beyond the curve.
• Make certain eye glass and hearing aid prescriptions are current.
• Use a cane, walking stick, or walker for support and to give additional pressure and touch (tactile) orientation.
• Avoid activities that move the head up and down repetitively.
• Try to avoid keeping the head tilted back for long periods of time, for example painting or dusting above your head.
• Be cautious when using medications that may cause balance problems as a side effect.
If you are having an episode of vertigo, you should not drive or operate machinery until their doctor says it is safe to do so. People who are subject to sudden instances of vertigo should also avoid climbing ladders or participate in other situations that may be dangerous to themselves or others (for example, hiking alone or taking care of children), should they suddenly feel an episode of vertigo coming on.
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