One morning, many years ago, I woke to a world spinning off its axis.
At least, that's what it felt like. Only later, after some desperate online searches, did I realize I'd experienced a case of vertigo. It was debilitating, uncomfortable and frightening, and fortunately, it hasn't happened again to that degree.
True vertigo is a sense of spinning, said Kacie Rognlie, a doctor of physical therapy at Synergy Manual Physical Therapy. Rognlie specializes in vestibular re-education, a form of physical therapy that uses exercises, positions and maneuvers to help correct balance disorders. The vestibular system is the part of the inner ear that partners with the visual and muscle and joint systems to relay information to the brain and allows us to keep our balance.
The Vestibular Disorders Association reports that up to 35 percent of adults ages 40 and older (about 69 million Americans) have experienced some form of vestibular dysfunction.
So why does it happen? There's a wide range of answers, though the most popular one isn't comforting.
"Out of the blue is the most common reason," Rognlie said.
In our inner ear, we have a tiny organ the size of a dime. That's where all the hundreds of tiny calcium carbonate crystals that sense movement should spend their time, she said. But sometimes they get loose and start to float up into the ear canals, and that's when the trouble starts. They give the sensation of moving when you're not really moving, so you feel like the world is spinning around you.
They crystals can get loose because of age, Rognlie said. "Sometimes we'll see people who were on a flight, or were in a car wreck, and have trauma to the head. Something can dislodge those crystals and they start floating where they shouldn't be."
Surgery and sinus issues can also cause vertigo.
My case hit out of the blue and took about a week before I felt mostly normal again. It is possible to simply wait it out like I did, and let the crystals migrate back to where they belong. Most people, unsurprisingly, want to be cured immediately.
The good news? There's often a simple, quick solution. A trained therapist can guide you through specific maneuvers to move the crystals back into the proper spot, Rognlie said. She has the patient lie down, turn their head in one direction and then roll onto their side in that same direction. The process repeats on the other side.
One or two treatments will typically cure the vertigo, she said, but the work isn't done. She likes to send people home with exercises for the vestibular system.
"It's like a muscle," Rognlie said. "If you stop working your muscles, they're not going to be as strong as they used to be. When you try to go use it, it doesn't work like it used to."
Think back to childhood and all those somersaults and cartwheels, swings, merry-go-rounds and summers spent riding roller coasters and Tilt-A-Whirls. Those activities stimulated our vestibular systems and kept them healthy. And while part of the reason you can no longer do those things is due to aging, there's also something to be said for the "use it or lose it" aspect.
"As you get older, you're not doing those things anymore," Rognlie said."
If you're like me, though, you know there's no octopus ride on the agenda anytime soon. Rognlie agreed, and suggests starting slow.
"We can stimulate the system by doing some eye or posture exercises. We want to build your system up to the level where you can get out of bed, look down to put toothpaste on the brush, look down as you go downstairs, get dressed, turn your head while driving, so none of those symptoms really provoke you."
Her most important piece of advice?
"Don't sit in a chair and watch TV all day," she said. "Don't become inactive."