"It’s the only program like this in the area."
Karen Humphrey, MPT
Imagine: You’re on a monster roller coaster traveling at 120 miles per hour, twisting and turning, upside down and around, and suddenly screaming to a body-jolting halt. You disembark and feel like your body is spinning. You’re dizzy and light-headed, slightly nauseous and disoriented.
For those with balance disorders, the roller coaster feelings are everyday experiences. Normal balance requires coordination of three senses: visual (perception of your body at rest and in motion); auditory (sensory signals received from the middle and inner ear and transmitted to the outer ear); and the proprioceptive system (sensations from the skin, muscles and joints). When two or more of these systems are not in harmony, individuals can experience difficulties walking, bending over, reaching up, and reading.
McLaren’s Balance Center was established in 2002, and is the only program like this in the state, with the exception of Michigan Ear Institute’s program in Ann Arbor.
"Of all balance patients treated at the center," says Karen Humphrey, MPT, "80% of our patients have Benign Paroxysmal Postural Vertigo (BPPV)." Translated, BPPV is dizziness thought to be associated with debris (calcium carbonate crystals) that collect in the utricle, a part of the inner ear.
In young people under 50, BPPV can result from head injury. Migraine can be the culprit among all ages. In older people, the vestibular system of the inner ear has started to break down. Its symptoms: dizziness, lightheadedness, lack of balance and nausea. Almost always, the symptoms appear when the head position changes in relationship to gravity.
Some background on the vestibular system: its chambers and tubes connect the middle and inner ear and Eustachian tube, and is responsible for equalizing pressure within the ear and the outer ear, When the vestibular system is impaired, a person can experience a lack of balance or dizziness, poor depth perception, blurry vision, headache, motion sickness, and sensitivity to noise and bright lights.
How can the vestibular system be temporarily impaired?
- Reaction to some medications
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Putting foreign objects in the ear canal (i.e.,
- A blow to the head or ear
- Loud noise (particularly constant exposure with no
- Pressure changes
"Balance Center treatments are aimed at the individual’s particular problem," says Humphrey, "and that can include frequency, duration and intensity of the symptoms. We see patients after the doctor has treated them. Physical therapy helps patients gain control over their environment. For example, we may work with a patient on staying balanced while on unfamiliar surfaces, or in responding to quick or unanticipated movements.
"They may work on balance boards to learn their center of gravity. Exercises may include throwing and catching a ball when the point of return isn’t guaranteed. Kicking a ball helps them learn to stay upright and maintain their center of gravity. Sometimes we’ll have them navigate an obstacle course, so they feel confident in their balance perception at a variety of sitting, standing and bending positions.
"What’s most important is to recognize and treat balance problems, so patients know how to prevent falls, and can walk, turn, sit and stand with confidence."
Note: A physician’s referral to the Balance Center is required. For details, call (810) 342-5350.