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Has a Virus Got You Feeling Dizzy?

  January 02, 2017

By Poonam McAllister, Physical Therapist, Central Illinois Institute of Balance

Flu season is here, and we have seen many patients who experienced dizziness along with the usual flu-like symptoms of headache, body ache, and fatigue. I experienced this myself and felt like the couch was rocking like a ship at sea. For several weeks following the flu, I was light headed and even tripped over my feet when turning around. Since I treat patients with dizziness, I diagnosed myself to have vestibular neuritis along with the flu. Once I returned to work, I had to work on my own vestibular rehabilitation right along with the patients I treat. So, what is vestibular neuritis and what does it have to do with viruses and dizziness?

Neuritis means inflammation of the nerve. Vestibular neuritis is inflammation of the nerve that connects the inner ear to the brain. This results in problems with balance as well as symptoms of dizziness. Inner-ear infections in adults that lead to vestibular neuritis are usually caused by viruses rather than bacteria. There are many viruses that can cause inner ear infections, including infectious diseases that affect the entire body like mononucleosis or measles. Other viruses, like those that cause cold sores, chicken pox, rubella, and mumps, only affect the inner ear and usually only one side. Additional viruses may also cause inner ear infections, but they have not yet been identified.

A more severe bacterial infection is usually associated with sudden loss of hearing as well as problems with dizziness and balance. Since the symptoms of bacterial and viral infections causing vestibular neuritis can be so similar, with the main difference being that viral does not cause hearing loss, proper diagnosis by a physician followed by physical therapy is essential. Expensive testing can often be avoided if you are properly diagnosed right away and start a Vestibular Physical Therapy exercise program immediately, which may require a referral from a primary care physician, ENT specialist, or neurologist. Your physical therapist not only evaluates and develops a program of vestibular rehabilitation exercises but also works as a coach and a liaison between you and your doctor.

If you suddenly start experiencing symptoms of any sort of dizziness, whether very slight or violent spinning accompanied by nausea, unsteadiness, and difficulty with vision, you should see your physician. The symptoms of acute viral inflammation can be so severe that people cannot stand up or walk and have intense vomiting any time they move their head. This can lead to a trip to the emergency room.

There are other medical conditions that can cause the symptom of dizziness, which is why your doctor may order testing to rule out other more serious causes of dizziness. Once those causes are ruled out, medication may be prescribed to control the nausea and reduce inflammation. If a bacterial cause is suspected, you might be given an antibiotic.

A person suffering from dizziness or imbalance due to vestibular neuritis has a tendency to stop moving because any head or body movement makes them nauseous, dizzy, or unsteady. Over time, your brain may learn to compensate for the weaker inner-ear on its own, however, not moving after the acute phase has subsided will only prolong and delay the process of brain adaptation. Therefore, once you are over the initial phase, it is very important to begin a program of vestibular rehabilitation exercises to help the brain ignore the “bad signal” from the involved ear. These exercises are very simple and can be done easily at home. Depending on the duration of the problem, your exercise program may include a series of head and eye exercises as well balance exercises. A rehab program designed by a physical therapist who is specially trained in this field will accelerate your progress, helping you return to work and regain normal function much quicker.

For more information on problems with balance or dizziness, contact Poonam McAllister at Central Illinois Institute of Balance, 309-663-4900 or Poonam is specially trained in the evaluation and treatment of balance disorders using a comprehensive approach that looks at the complexities of balance problems in the context of the total patient. Her office is located at 211 Landmark Dr, Suite E-3 in Normal.
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January 02, 2017

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