Virtual Treatments for Vertigo

October 23, 2009 3:30:19 PM PDT
Experts say it's an under-diagnosed and under-treated problem -- vertigo most often happens when tiny crystals in the inner ear come loose, giving the body a false sense of movement. For people with the condition, simply turning over in bed can throw the body's inner "gyroscope" into a spin. Two new treatments are designed to get people with vertigo back in balance.It doesn't take much to throw their worlds off-balance.

"At times, standing in front of the shelf and looking from top to bottom would set me off," said vertigo sufferer Judith Uhl.

'"The room just spins and spins and spins," Betty Austin, who suffers from the same problem, explained. "Even when your eyes are closed, you can feel the room spinning."

For people with vertigo, going to the grocery store can be a dizzying experience. Researchers are treating the balance disorder by forcing people to face their fears in a virtual world.

"It's similar to what some psychotherapists do for anxiety or panic disorder, that you expose somebody to more and more difficult situations," Susan Whitney, Ph.D., a physical therapist at UPMC Ear, Nose & Throat Specialists in Pittsburgh, Penn., said.

Six weeks of wheeling through the virtual store eased dizziness in the real world for 75 percent of patients.

"It's wonderful," vertigo patient Susan Dearden told Ivanhoe. "It's like I got my life back."

A "dizzy chair" made of recycled aircraft parts is helping Betty Austin with her vertigo.

While she tips and turns, special glasses record her eye movements. Those movements help doctors locate loose crystals in the inner ear, a major cause of vertigo.

"There is a certain maneuver or path that I can vector the patient along to reposition those crystals," Ian Purcell, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist at Senta Medical Clinic in San Diego, Calif., said.

When the crystals are moved away from nerve endings, the vertigo stops. Austin says it's working.

"The treatment is incredible, and how well it works and how I feel afterwards," she said.

Two unique ways that stop the spinning and help patients land securely on their feet.

Doctors say while other conditions and medications can cause dizziness, true vertigo happens when patients become dizzy while lying down.

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