Many of us are familiar with the systems of dizziness: spinning sensations, unsteadiness, and when walking, we feel we are about to fall or tip over. According to a 2008 report by the Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 33 million Americans suffer from dizziness or a balance disorder.

Yet, many illnesses may cause us to lose our balance. They range from ear infections, head injuries, or the side effects of some medications.

We will address three of the most prominent illnesses, its causes, symptoms, and treatment. In particular, we will focus on how virtual reality therapy can help.

Illnesses

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) or positional vertigo

Those suffering from vertigo have brief but intense dizziness when they move their head to another position. This occurs when the vestibular fluid within the inner ear may not respond properly due to loosened otoconia. The brain receives mixed signals when the head is moved, thus creating the dizziness associated with vertigo.

Causes of vertigo could be the result of a head injury or part of the aging process.

Ménière’s Disease

Common complaints of Ménière’s disease are episodes of spinning sensations, tinnitus (ringing sound in the ears), and hearing loss in one ear. These occurrences may last anywhere between 15 to 25 minutes. Tinnitus and hearing loss might become permanent as the disease progresses.

Experts are not sure of the exact cause of Ménière’s disease, but it is believed to be a result of excessive vestibular fluid in the inner ear. The reason for the excess fluid is not known.

Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis occurs when nerves of the inner ear are infected or inflamed, resulting in incorrect signals sent to the brain. Sufferers experience the feeling of movement when there is no movement. Nausea and vomiting, along with tinnitus, are common with this illness.

Those who have labyrinthitis may experience difficulty driving, focusing their eyes, or other activities where constant movement is required.

The causes of labyrinthitis may include respiratory illnesses, viruses of the inner ear, or bacterial infection.

Diagnosis

An otolaryngologist or an audiologist can perform several tests to determine if an individual has a balance disorder. Blood and hearing tests may be needed to detect the presence of viral or bacterial infection.

However, more complex examinations may be warranted. For example, a nystagmogram measures eye movements by looking at visual stimuli. If the results prove abnormal, the physician might conclude labyrinthitis.

Another would be a posturography in which the patient stands on a movable platform. After being strapped in a harness for protection, the platform moves and shifts to different directions. The physician would evaluate how the patient would adjust to the movement.

Treatment

There are many treatment options available for those who suffer from balance disorders. In the case of Ménière’s disease and labyrinthitis, there are medicines, such as meclizine (Antivert), benzodiazepines, and corticosteroids (antibiotics). However, some of these medicines may cause drowsiness. Therefore caution should be exercised before driving or working on machinery. Special care and monitoring by the health practitioner is essential when prescribing benzodiazepines since addiction may occur.

Some exercises may help patients improve their condition. An otolaryngologist may have the patient perform balancing techniques such was walking toe-to-toe on a straight line.

Virtual reality therapy is also used as an effective treatment for patients. The treatment involves the individual to wear special goggles which contains visual images of movement. On the computer monitor, the physician will see the same image that the individual sees through the goggles.

Once the test begins, the patient must adjust to what is seen. The physician will record the results as to how well the patient reacted.

The goal for the patient would be a gradual realignment of their balance orientation through practice. Some see virtual reality therapy as a means to quickly improve patient treatment.