EDINBURG—Irma Estrada’s world is always spinning.

For the last four years, she has suffered from nearly constant vertigo—a feeling that she, or the objects around her, are in motion, even when they’re still.

Sometimes the spinning sensation becomes so severe that she suddenly loses her balance and falls down, dizzy and disoriented.

"I’ve cried to the doctor and said, ‘Please, find a cure,’" says the 28-year-old Edinburg resident.

Estrada takes medication for vertigo and has undergone physical therapy, but hasn’t found lasting help, she said.

Balance disorders and dizziness problems like hers are relatively rare among young people, but surprisingly common among the elderly, according to studies. About 2% of young adults struggle with dizziness or vertigo, compared to more than 30% of the elderly. By age 60, about 65% report experiencing dizziness or balance problems, sometimes daily, according to one study.

Dizziness is one of the most common reasons older adults visit physicians, according to information from the Mayo Clinic. Many conditions that can cause dizziness become more common with age, too, said one doctor.

"I see older people often," said Tan D. Nguyen, MD, a Harlingen ear, nose and throat specialist. Nguyen sees patients each day who have problems with dizziness or losing balance. "Problems with the feet, with the muscles, or neurological changes all can affect balance, and those can happen with age."

The factors of balance

A frequent culprit in dizziness, and the reason most patients come to see Nguyen, is in the inner ear.

A portion of the inner ear, known as the labyrinth, helps regulate a person’s equilibrium. The labyrinth has three fluid-filled canals that also contain hair-like sensors.

When the fluid moves, that helps the brain detect that your head is moving, and in which direction. Other parts of the inner ear help detect gravity and back-and-forth motion, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Ear infections, swelling, debris build-up and excess fluid in the ear all can create problems with equilibrium, physicians say.

The inner ear, the eyes and nervous system all work together for good balance, Nguyen said. As long as two of the three systems are working, you have good balance. However, if your eyes and inner ear give you contradictory messages, or your nervous system is having trouble processing that information, then your balance is affected.

Head injuries, some medications, circulation problems, aging and neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and arthritis are just some of the factors that can contribute to dizziness or problems with balance.

"Most of the time, you see a variety of factors," Nguyen said.

Hope for treatment

Treating balance disorders and dizziness really depends on the cause, Nguyen said. The first step is to find out whether an underlying condition, like a heart problem or Parkinson’s disease, is causing the symptoms, he said.

Ear infections might be treatable with antibiotics, depending on whether they are bacterial or viral.

For many people with balance problems, certain kinds of physical therapy can help, Nguyen said.

Particular head and eye-movement exercises can help the brain readjust to changes in the inner ear, said Sam Koneri, a physical therapist at Edinburg Regional Medical Center.

The exercises might include looking at a stationary object while moving the head, or keeping the head still while moving the eyes, Koneri said.

Balance disorders that have other causes, like muscle problems or neurological problems, also can be helped with physical therapy, he said. Exercises include trying to balance on a wobbly board or doing exercises that target certain "core" muscles of the body.

A McAllen chiropractic office recently bought a $43,000 machine that alternately pushes and pulls core muscles around the spine, thus helping with balance and mobility, chiropractors said. The SpineForce machine has helped several patients improve their balance, said chiropractor Dan Albracht.

A study that appeared in a French medical journal suggested that the machine can help improve equilibrium and posture in healthy adults, and might help do the same for the elderly. Few other medical studies exist on the device’s effectiveness.

Several types of treatment can help with balance problems and dizziness, so people suffering from these problems have hope, Nguyen said.

"Most cases can be improved, and people (with balance problems) can function pretty well," he said.

Melissa McEver covers health and environment issues for Valley Freedom Newspapers. She is based in Harlingen.

[Source: The Monitor]