Peripheral neuropathy is a condition of the nervous system that causes numbness, tingling, pins and needles sensation, or complaints of pain in the arms and legs. The pattern of the altered sensation starts in the toes or fingertips. If the condition worsens, this feeling gradually climbs up the foot or hand, as if you are putting on a stocking or a glove. In the legs, the condition can go above the ankle, but for most of the patients I have met, it has been less common for it to travel above the knee. This problem can occur when a person has diabetes, or it can occur without any history of diabetes.
Sometimes people have it off and on. Others say that they only notice it at night when they are lying in bed. Others have these altered sensations constantly. Some people say their symptoms are mild, and they basically ignore it, while others have severe symptoms that can be annoying, painful, or debilitating.
If the peripheral neuropathy is severe, it can affect one’s balance. This seems to be the case if a person has peripheral neuropathy, in addition to other problems such as visual or inner ear disorders. The reason for this is that the sensation that we have in our feet sends messages to the brain that tells our brain how we are shifting our weight. Our brain uses this information, in addition to the information it gets from the inner ear balance system and the visual system, to tell our joints and muscles what to do to maintain our balance. Usually our brains can compensate when one of these systems is sending poor information, but it is very tough to balance when two or more of these systems are not sending good information (for example, a person has peripheral neuropathy in addition to an inner ear problem and/or a visual problem).
Medical treatments to decrease the pain and discomfort of peripheral neuropathy need to be discussed with a physician.
Treatments to decrease the imbalance caused by peripheral neuropathy need to be addressed with a physical therapist that specializes in treating complex balance problems. I would recommend a vestibular specialist.
With many of my physical therapy balance patients in Sarasota, Florida, as we work together to evaluate their peripheral neuropathy further, we come to recognize that even though the sensation in the feet is altered, the brain has the ability to re-learn how to use the information even though it is not how it used to be, or “normal”. When the peripheral neuropathy is so severe that the person cannot feel the ground at all, compensations such as walking with trekking poles or a cane can make a big difference, because then the person can learn how to substitute feeling the ground with the cane for the missing sensation in their feet.
If you are having problems like these, there are things that can be done to help.
Painting: The Black Stocking by Felix Vallotton, 1904
BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo) is the most common type of inner ear problem, comprising approximately 25% of all inner ear problems. It is caused when crystals in the ear that are supposed to sit on top of the nerve fibers in a jelly like matrix, become loose and start floating in the semi-circular canals of the ear. When this happens, the person can experience a spinning sensation (vertigo) that lasts for seconds and is triggered by changes in head or body position. For instance, it happens when getting in/out of bed, bending over, or tipping your head back.
In answer to the question, “Can people have BPPV in both ears?” the answer is YES. About 40% of people can have it in both ears at the same time. The good news is that if the condition does not go away on its own, it can be treated with maneuvers to guide the crystals back into the part of the ear where they belong.
If you think you have BPPV, I encourage you to find a qualified doctor or physical therapist, who can test to see if BPPV is your problem, and if it is in one ear or both ears. The proper testing leads to the proper treatment, and to the proper cure…
Painting entitled, A Serious Question, by Sergey Solomko
This is a condition that causes dizziness when a person changes position, for example when getting out of bed in the morning, or when standing up from a chair.
I test for this condition with my physical therapy patients in Sarasota, Florida who complain of dizziness when changing positions, because not all dizziness is caused by inner ear problems! The symptoms of orthostatic hypotension are similar in some ways to an inner ear condition called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo that can also cause dizziness with positional changes, however, the treatments for these two problems are very different.
What happens with orthostatic hypotension?
Orthostatic hypotension is not an inner ear problem. It is caused by dropping blood pressure. When the person sits up, or stands up, the blood drops from their head, and until the body readjusts, the person feels lightheaded and dizzy. If the body doesn’t adjust fast enough, the person could pass out.
What are some factors that could cause orthostatic hypotension?
Low sodium in the body
Poor vascular circulation in the legs
Over medication with cardiac meds meant to control high blood pressure
How is it tested?
The person’s blood pressure is taken first when lying on their back in bed.
Then the blood pressure is taken when they first sit up at the edge of the bed.
Then the blood pressure is taken when they first stand up.
If the blood pressure drops more than 20 mm Hg from one position to the next, then the test is positive.
What can be done to correct orthostatic hypotension?
• A physician should review your medications, especially if you are taking cardiac medications, as they may need to be held or adjusted.
• Sometimes this condition is caused by dehydration, so drinking water is very important!
• Sometimes patients are deficient in sodium, and their body is not retaining the fluids it needs to have good fluid volume.
• Sometimes the vascular vessels in the legs loose their elasticity, and wearing compression stockings can help prevent this shift of blood to the legs when changing positions.
Speak to your physician if you suspect orthostatic hypotension could be causing your dizziness. This is a problem that can usually be corrected.
Painting: Getting Up, by Berthe Morisot 1886
Recently, I wrote an article about Labyrinthitis, and mentioned that with this type of inner ear problem, when it affects only one ear, the expectation is for full functional recovery. I received some feedback from some frustrated readers who had this problem but did not recover. They felt that I made it seem like everyone gets 100% better, and they were living proof that this is not always the case!
My training tells me that when a patient is not making progress as expected, it is time to stop and reassess what is going on, and why?
First off, could something have been missed? If so, this is the time to readjust the treatment plan to address the issue. If nothing was missed, then why is the patient not improving?
Here is a list of potential reasons that I have seen with patients over the years:
1. The patient is doing their exercises, but they are not doing the exercises correctly.
2. The patient is not compliant with their home exercises. They know how to do the exercises, but for whatever reason they are not doing the exercises, or not doing them as frequently as they were prescribed.
3. The patient is avoiding exercises that cause dizziness or nausea, and therefore the brain cannot learn how to adjust and recover.
4. The patient has many other health problems that are compounding their problem, and causing them not to fully recover.
5. The patient has memory and cognition problems, and has no social support network to help bridge the gap and assist them with their home exercise program.
6. The patient’s exercise program does not address all of the patient’s issues.
7. The patient has not been given the right exercises, or the right exercise progression.
If you are not improving with your vestibular therapy, it’s time to talk to your therapist. I can tell you, the therapist wants you to get better! Sometimes a good review will allow the patient to get back on track with their recovery.
If recovery is not occurring as expected based on your diagnosis, then you need to go to another professional for a second opinion.
Artwork: Reflection, a pastel by Odilon Redon
VOR stands for the Vestibular Ocular Reflex. This is basically the coordination that one has between head and eye movements. The way it works is this: when a person is moving their head, the ears send information to the brain to tell the brain how the head is moving. The brain then uses this information to coordinate the eye movements so that the person can stabilize their gaze on an object even though their head is in motion. We do this all the time! For instance, if I am talking to someone, and nodding my head yes or no, then I am using my VOR.
When a person has a weakness in one ear following an inner ear infection, for example, the brain that was used to getting the same amount of information from each ear, realizes that the information from the two ears is no longer balanced. The affected side is not sending the same amount of information as the healthy ear anymore. Initially, this can cause dizziness, nausea, and imbalance. To avoid these symptoms, patients will often avoid head motions. While this may seem logical at first, to continue avoiding head motions only makes the problem worse. You see, the brain needs to learn the difference that now exists between the two ears, and the only way the brain can do this is by experiencing the movement! The brain won’t learn how to recalibrate itself if the person continues to avoid moving their head. By doing the VOR exercise, we force the brain to pay attention to the inner ear information when the head is moving, because the brain must in order to coordinate the eye motions and allow the person to keep their eyes fixed on the target without the target looking blurry, double, or as if it is jumping around…
Initially, this exercise may cause dizziness, or increase the person’s baseline dizziness. The patient should first do this exercise at a slow speed, and for a short duration (30 seconds). That way if the exercise causes dizziness, the dizziness should dissipate in a few minutes after stopping the exercise. With practice, the exercise will no longer cause dizziness or nausea. Once this happens, then we work on increasing the duration of the exercise little by little until eventually they can do it for 2 minutes and feel fine afterwards. At that point, we work on increasing the speed of the head motion, so that the brain learns how to process faster and faster head motions, and not feel dizzy. After that, we move on to other variations. You see, there is a progression to the exercise, and a vestibular specialist will be able to teach you how to do the exercise correctly, and guide you in your journey toward recovery.
Man with His Head Full of Clouds- Painting by Salvador Dali, 1936
This is the time of year when one can reflect on our lives and the things we want to improve on for the upcoming year. Why not make it your goal to improve your balance? One way to decide if your balance needs improving is by having your balance tested. Balance testing can be high tech, or low tech. The low tech testing is something that you could do at home, without fancy equipment, and it is based on a physical performance test. In other words, we ask a patient to perform a balance skill, and then see if they can do it or not. A person with good balance, and no history of inner ear pathology or neurological problems should be able to do the test.
One such test is called the Rhomberg Test. When I do this test with my balance therapy patients in Sarasota, Florida, I have the patient stand in a corner about 2 inches away from the wall, with a chair in front for safety. Then, I am standing by just in case. If you decide to try this test, have a friend or family member stand by to make sure you do not fall and get hurt.
The test is this- the person must stand with their feet together, with no space in between the feet. (If you are knock-kneed and cannot get your feet together, then put your knees as close together as you can). Next, you stand as still as you can, trying not to sway. The goal is to be able to do this for 30 seconds without falling, needing to open your eyes, take a step, or touch the wall or chair for support.
When standing with the eyes open, the person is using their vision, their inner ear system, and their somatosensory system to help them balance. Somatosensation is the sensation that allows your joints and muscles to send information to the brain to tell you if you are steady, or swaying. If a person cannot perform this test for 30 seconds, then they are at high risk for falling.
The second part of the Rhomberg Test is performed with the eyes closed. Again, the goal is to stand for 30 seconds. When the eyes are closed, the brain must rely on information from the inner ear, and feeling the ground in order to maintain balance. If a person falls in this test, they are reliant on their vision to maintain balance. This means that they would be at increased risk of falling if walking in a darkened setting, or on a complaint surface such as grass in the back yard when the sun is setting, for example.
How did you do with the testing? If the answer is “not so good”, make it your 2015 New Year’s Resolution to do something about it before you fall and get hurt. What should you do? Talk to your doctor about your balance, and find a physical therapist who specializes in treating inner ear balance problems. You could find a balance specialist in your area if you go to the Vestibular Disorders Association website. They allow you to search for a physical therapist in your area by entering your zip code. I believe you can achieve the goal of better balance in 2015! Happy New Year!
Painting: Planting the New Year’s Pine by Keisai Eisen, 1830s.
It’s that time a year for the annual trip to the Christmas tree lot. Last week I went with my family to find the perfect tree. We walked around and around each tree, trying to find the one that looked just right. We were tipping our head back to look at the top of the tree, and then looking down to examine the bottom of the tree, searching for the perfect shape and height… We looked at so many trees! When we got home, we had to tip our heads back when we reached overhead to pull the tree off the roof of the SUV. Then we carried the bulky, heavy, awkward tree into the house. Once the tree was set up, which was tricky on it’s own, we climbed up and down ladders putting the star on top, not to mention the lights and the ornaments! Then I had to get down on my hands and knees and crawl under the tree to pour a pitcher of water in the container for the tree to drink.
I couldn’t help but think of my balance therapy patients in Sarasota, Florida, and of my patients with positional vertigo (BPPV). I was praying that they weren’t doing the same thing I was doing, and that I wouldn’t come in to work on Monday morning to find out that someone had fallen and gotten hurt.
Can you imagine doing all these things if you had vertigo? When a person has Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV), bending the head down, or tipping the head back, can trigger a vertigo spell. It goes without saying, that if you are standing on a ladder and reaching overhead to hang something on a tree, you definitely don’t want the world to spin!
So this is a tip for those with holiday cheer and vertigo, let someone else do the ladders, and the reaching overhead and bending over! If you have positional vertigo, aim for the ornaments in the middle of the tree where you can keep your head level. This way you won’t have to worry about triggering the vertigo, and potentially falling and getting hurt during the holiday session. Or, if you live alone, you could get a smaller tree this year that is 3 feet tall, and place it on a small table so that you can decorate it without having to tip you head back or bend over too much…
And also, for those of you with balance problems and BPPV, give yourself the present you deserve, and go and see a trained vestibular specialist and get treated for your problem, so that you can enjoy all the festivities that this time of year brings, but without the vertigo or imbalance! That would be the best present of all!
BPPV is a condition of the inner ear where the crystals in the ear that are supposed to be sitting on top of the nerve fibers become dislodged and start floating in the semi circular canals. When this happens, it can trigger symptoms of vertigo (a spinning sensation), dizziness, or imbalance. Unlike other inner ear symptoms, vertigo caused by BPPV lasts seconds, not for extended minutes, hours or days.
Top 5 Motions that can trigger BPPV listed in no particular order:
1. Vertigo or dizziness when getting in or out of bed.
2. Vertigo or dizziness when rolling over in bed.
3. Vertigo or dizziness when tipping your head back to look overhead.
4. Vertigo or dizziness when bending over.
5. Vertigo or dizziness when moving your head or body quickly.
Motion, 1962 an Abstract Painting by Ernst Wilhelm Nay
Labyrinthitis is a condition that affects the inner ear hearing and balance system. It is caused by an infection to the inner ear that can result in temporary or permanent damage to the inner ear. Symptoms associated with labyrinthitis include complaints of severe and sudden vertigo, dizziness, nausea, imbalance, veering during ambulation, difficulty walking, and sensitivity to head motions. Patients who have had labyrinthitis may be sent to a physical therapist that specializes in treating inner ear problems. This therapy is sometimes referred to as Vestibular Rehabilitation. The therapist is sometimes referred to as a “vestibular therapist”. This therapy is very specialized. Vestibular therapists must go for specialized continuing education after completing their degree and obtaining their license, in order to become competent. My physical therapy practice in Sarasota, Florida specializes in treating people with vestibular inner ear problems.
When it comes to labyrinthitis, the good news is that it is not very common for a labyrinthitis to affect both ears. What does this mean for the brain? It means that the good ear is sending the full amount of information that it always did, but the bad ear is not. Testing by an audiologist can confirm how much information each ear is sending. Patients with labyrinthitis can lose up to 100% of their inner ear balance function, or just a portion. Testing for this is done with video nystagmography (VNG). For there to be considered a clinically significant difference in the two ears, one ear must show a reduced responsiveness to testing of at least 21% to 100%. Even if the bad ear is 100% damaged, with therapy the brain will adjust and learn to depend on the good ear, and whatever amount of information the affected ear is capable of sending. Once the brain recalibrates itself to this difference in information that it is receiving from each ear, the symptoms will stop. The patient will regain their balance, and no longer be dizzy, nauseated, or sensitive to movement. They will be able to turn their head quickly, turn quickly, bend over, walk and look to the side, and basically return to life as normal. For many people, this recovery happens on its own. As the person gets back to life as normal and resumes their normal activities, the brain gradually adjusts. That is why it is really important once you are over the worst of things that you start moving your head again, and become active! The patients that come to see me for physical therapy in Sarasota somehow were unable to make this transition on their own, and need a therapist to guide them in exercises and activities to help them recalibrate their balance system and get back to life as normal. In general, a person suffering from labyrinthitis should get completely better within 8-12 weeks of the proper therapy. If you are having these types of problems, please know that there are treatments that can help!
Clissa Turned Left with her Hand to her Ear, pastel portrait by Mary Cassatt, 1895.
Basically, our brain relies on sensory input that tells it where our body is in space. Then the brain deciphers this information, and tells the joints and muscles what to do to maintain balance.
Where does the brain get its sensory information from? The 3 main sets of information the brain relies on come from our eyes, our ears, and the joints and muscles.
1. The eyes provide visual feedback as to where we are in relationship to our environment. For instance, if I walk outside and have to cross a crooked sidewalk, I see what is coming and subconsciously my brain tells my legs what to do to adjust my steps and maintain my balance.
2. A second set of sensory information comes from the nerve endings in our muscles and joints that tells that brain how we are shifting our weight on our legs, and if we are standing or walking on something firm, or soft, or slanted. We call this proprioception.
3. A third set of information comes from our inner ear system, (we actually have two of these, one in each ear). The ears act like little gyroscopes to tell the brain if we are moving. They tell the brain how far, how fast, and in what plane of motion we are experiencing movement.
The brain takes this sensory information, and then tells the joints and muscles what to do to maintain balance.
If you understand this concept, then watching Nik Wallenda walk a couple weeks ago between the skyscrapers in Chicago, will be even more meaningful to you. As some of you may have figured out, Nik Wallenda and I both live in Sarasota, Florida. A friend said to me, “Hey, Nik Wallenda is practicing for his Chicago walk tonight at 6 pm, do you want to go watch and show our support?”. How could I say no to that?!!! After watching him practice, I knew he could do it, and I was able to watch the Discovery Channel to see his triumph.
Here are some pictures I took of him when he was practicing in Sarasota.
As you can see here, he is walking on the wire up an incline. He is using his vision, his proprioception (feeling the alignment of his body on the wire), and his inner ear system. You could even argue that he is using his hearing too, but that is a topic for another blog. His brain is getting this SENSORY information, and then tells his joints and muscles what to do to maintain balance and walk the wire. At every second, this system is analyzing and reanalyzing, and deciding what to do next. When walking with his eyes open, his vision and inner ear system are sending very reliable information on what is happening, and his proprioceptive system is also sending information, but it is more variable because the wire can move and be unpredictable.
In this picture, Nik is walking blindfolded. WHATTTT!!! He essentially deprived his brain of very reliable information, and now he only has the sensation from a wire that can move, and from his inner ear system. His inner ear system is sending the most reliable information in this condition.
Nik- blindfolded on his way to the tower. Doing what he does, walking the wire blindfolded, with only 2 sets of information for his brain to utilize is astounding. When watching the Discovery program that night, I remember his wife and mother saying that they were most worried about the blindfolded portion. When they said that, I thought to myself, me too!!! Now I hope you can understand from a physiological standpoint why this was so unbelievable. Hopefully one day, Nik will be a guest blogger on my blog, because his mission is to inspire people. I bought one on his signed posters that day to put in my office to help inspire my patients with balance problems. It says at the bottom, NEVER GIVE UP-DARE TO BE GREAT! Thanks, Nik Wallenda for all you give to others.
Time to check my messages…