As detailed in our previous post, concussions and whiplash are common injuries that may arise as a result of a motor vehicle accident. This type of trauma to the neck and base of the skull can also result in injuries to the inner ear structures, also known as the vestibular system. This system is largely responsible in regulating balance, spatial awareness, coordination, and controlling eye movements.

When the vestibular system is injured, a person may experience symptoms such as:

  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Neck pain
  • Difficultly with coordination (clumsiness)
  • Vertigo (spinning or whirling sensations)
  • Migraines
  • Feeling as though you are moving, when you are actually still
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Difficulty walking in the dark
  • Trouble tracking moving objects with your eyes
  • Discomfort due to visual overstimulation
  • Photosensitivity (sensitivity to light)
  • Problems with depth perception
  • Distorted hearing
  • Tinnitus (continuous ringing or buzzing noises in the ear)
  • Sensitivity to loud noises and environments
  • Slurred speech

These symptoms can be present while sitting still, standing up, or with any kind of movement. They can be very disorienting, frightening, and difficult to describe. In addition, symptoms of vestibular disorder may cause people to avoid physical activity in order to avoid worsening feelings of dizziness and disorientation. This can lead to decreased muscle strength and flexibility, as well as joint stiffness.

Vestibular dysfunction is a particularly dangerous condition for the elderly and those with disabilities, as it may increase their chances of becoming disoriented and taking a hard fall. Symptoms of vestibular dysfunction may take several weeks to manifest following a motor vehicle accident, and people may not immediately attribute their symptoms to the MVA. Unfortunately, a vestibular dysfunction is often permanent for most people. If you experience the symptoms of vestibular dysfunction, you should seek treatment from a physical therapist trained in vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT). VRT can help people feel better and regain their ability to perform regular everyday tasks.

VRT is an exercise-based program designed to reduce the sensations of vertigo, dizziness, and gaze instability. Essentially, this program trains the brain to compensate by learning to rely on its other senses in order to deal with inner ear deficiencies. The exercises are customized to address each patient’s particular symptoms and problems.

There are three main methods to promoting brain compensation in order to alleviate the symptoms of vestibular disorder are:

  • Habituation
  • Gaze Stabilization
  • Balance Training

Habituation are exercises used to treat symptoms such as dizziness triggered by body movements and/or visual stimuli. The goal is to reduce symptoms by repeatedly exposing specific movements or visual stimuli in order to trigger dizziness. Over time, the brain will learn to ignore the abnormal signals it receives from the inner ear because of repeated exposure. In essence, the brain gets used to the triggers and the symptoms of dizziness should decrease over time.

Gaze stabilization exercises are used to improve control of eye movements and decrease unpleasant visual symptoms due to inner ear dysfunction. Many patients have difficultly perceiving objects as steady, as they appear to bounce or jump around in their line of sight. During the gaze stabilization exercises, the patient may be asked to stare fixedly at an object while repeatedly moving their head back and forth, or up and down for a couple of minutes. This sends signals to the brain that the object is in fact stationary relative to the patient’s movements.

Balance training is used to improve body coordination and steadiness.

The most important aspect of VRT is establishing an exercise program that can be performed at home on a daily basis. Diligently following the exercise program is essential in achieving rehabilitation and alleviating symptoms of vestibular dysfunction. The exercises might exacerbate a patient’s symptoms at first, but over time the brain will learn to compensate and the symptoms should steadily decrease. This will make it easier for the patient to return to their regular everyday life.

If you feel that you may have suffered vestibular dysfunction after being involved with a motor vehicle accident, it would be beneficial to contact a personal injury lawyer, as well as your family doctor in order to obtain a referral to a physical therapist who specializes in VRT.