The human central processing unit, the brain, is housed in the head. The complexity of the head and its contents are the primary reason that we as humans are able to communicate at such a high level, can comprehend, appreciate, interact, love and nurture.
Although our lives may sometimes make us feel like we are running around like headless chooks (as chickens are reported to have done thousands of years ago after having their heads removed), humans aren’t able to function even in the very short term without our heads.
Dizziness is a common issue in the general population. It is estimated that at least five per cent of the Australian population (over one million people) will experience dizziness issues at some point in their lifetime. There are a number of causes for dizziness. Treatment options include medical management (eg, medications), physiotherapy and psychology intervention. Your GP can help determine the appropriate clinician for your specific needs.
What is the difference between dizziness and vertigo?
Dizziness and vertigo have similar symptoms but with some specific differences. Dizziness is a general term used to describe sensations such as light headedness, giddiness, disorientation and unsteadiness. Vertigo is easier to describe and involves a sensation that the room or the environment is spinning. Vertigo is highly characteristic of an inner ear (vestibular) complaint, whereas there are a number different causes for sensations of dizziness. These include inner ear (vestibular) disorders, reduced blood flow to the brain (vascular), neck (cervicogenic) issues, psychological problems and mild traumatic brain injury (concussion).
Research has determined that inner ear (vestibular) disorders are the cause for dizziness and vertigo in at least 50 per cent of cases but remain poorly diagnosed. For this reason, dizziness and vertigo are often associated with significant feelings of frustration, anxiety and depression and can affect a range of everyday activities. If your symptoms of dizziness and vertigo are triggered or made worse by moving quickly, then it is highly likely that they are caused by a problem in the inner ear (vestibular) system and require further investigation.
How do I know if what I’m experiencing is dizziness or vertigo?
Many people find it quite difficult to accurately describe their sensation of dizziness. Vertigo is easier to describe and involves a sensation that the room or the environment is spinning. Sometimes symptoms of vertigo come on out of the blue and sometimes they are triggered by something that you do, such as lying down or rolling over in bed.
Although there are a number different causes for dizziness, a medical specialist such as a neurologist, is commonly used to help establish the diagnosis. They are able to organise the tests required to determine the cause. These include a hearing test, a brain (MRI) scan, blood tests and specific balance function tests. Ways of treating the dizziness are dependent on the results of these tests.
Should I be worried?
In most instances, dizziness and vertigo are caused by conditions that are not serious. The symptoms themselves, however, can be very disabling and can affect all aspects of everyday life. Most people with dizziness are unable to function normally and avoid certain activities, such as driving, attending exercise classes, walking outside of the house and using public transport. Work can also be affected with many people feeling dizzy when using the computer or when exposed to bright light and increased noise. Financial pressures associated with reduced work hours can put stress on relationships with family and friends and many people report feelings of frustration, loss of confidence, anxiety and depression.
How can physiotherapy help with dizziness and vertigo?
Vestibular physiotherapy can be a very good option for treating symptoms of dizziness and vertigo, especially if these symptoms are triggered or made worse by movement. In many cases, dizziness that is worse with movement is caused by a disorder involving the inner ear (vestibular) system. Research has shown that vestibular physiotherapy is highly effective in treating vestibular disorders, such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), viral infection of the inner ear (vestibular neuritis) and vestibular migraine (a form of migraine that causes vertigo and dizziness with or without symptoms of headache).
Your physiotherapist with specific skills in vestibular rehabilitation would conduct a comprehensive assessment of your dizziness and vertigo, and, in many cases, would be able to establish the cause for your symptoms. If unable to establish a cause for your symptoms, your physiotherapist would refer you to a medical specialist who would be able to order more extensive testing.
Vestibular physiotherapy involves:
How effective is physiotherapy for dizziness and vertigo?
Many studies have been performed in the past 25 years that provide evidence regarding the effectiveness of vestibular physiotherapy in successfully treating people with dizziness and vertigo. These studies have demonstrated reductions in dizziness and vertigo, improved function, increased balance and reduced risk of falling following vestibular physiotherapy. In particular, research has found greater improvements if the exercises are customised to the specific needs of each person.
Vestibular physiotherapy can be delivered as a home exercise program that is performed three times every day, or with supervised classes. Both approaches have been found to result in significant changes in dizziness and balance measures. It is unknown how long a vestibular physiotherapy program will take, but changes should be expected within 4–6 weeks.
There are a number of factors that affect how long a vestibular physiotherapy program will take and these include:
BPPV is a specific inner ear (vestibular) condition that occurs when small calcium carbonate particles break loose within the inner ear. This can occur without reason or associated with an isolated incident. The particles can move into the wrong part of the inner ear and cause significant symptoms of positional vertigo when lying flat or rolling over in bed. Techniques such as the Epley manoeuvre can successfully treat BPPV and can be performed by physiotherapists with specific skills in this area. These techniques are highly successful in treating BPPV.
What can I do at home?
Vestibular physiotherapy consists of a customised set of exercises that need to be performed three times every day. Because the exercises are tailored to each individual, it is important that you see a qualified physiotherapist with specific skills in vestibular rehabilitation before you start your home exercise program.
People with vestibular complaints should try and keep as active as possible. This might be as simple as a gentle walk around the block with a friend or a visit to the gym as tolerated. It is the recovery that is important. If an activity makes you dizzy, then the dizziness should settle within 30 minutes of finishing that activity. If the dizziness takes more than 30 minutes to settle, then the activity was too challenging and should be modified to shorten the recovery time.
There are a number of home treatments for BPPV that can be found on the internet, but it is not recommended that people try these treatments at home without adequate supervision. Your physiotherapist with expertise in treating BPPV can advise you as to the correct treatment technique for your particular condition.
How long until I improve?
Vestibular physiotherapy for the treatment of dizziness and vertigo can be highly successful, but time frames can be difficult to determine. Most people need to be doing their vestibular exercises in a safe environment for 3–4 weeks before they feel any significant improvement. Reductions in dizziness and improvements in balance generally occur within 4–6 weeks.
Treatments for conditions such as BPPV are also highly effective, and generally only 1–3 treatments are required if the techniques are performed by physiotherapists with specific skills in vestibular physiotherapy.
A headache can be a stand-alone medical condition, result from menstruation and food sensitivities, or be a symptom of another condition or disease such as high blood pressure, arterial dissection or carcinoma. They present as pain, aching or throbbing in different regions of the head or behind the eyes. Headaches can present on both sides of the head, or just one. Sometimes they are associated with pain in the neck, the jaw or the teeth. A headache can be related to different postures, blurred vision, dizziness, disorientation, difficulty speaking, swallowing or feeling faint. They can also be associated with migraine symptoms with an aura (sensations prior to the headache such as visual changes, pins and needles, numbness, difficulty speaking, or feeling fatigued).
What causes headache?
Headaches can be caused by many factors. Headache Australia describes 35 different causes to headaches. In 2014, the International Headache Society (IHS) classified some headaches, such as migraine, tension type headache, cluster headache and exertional headaches, as ‘primary headaches’. These headaches were classified by the IHS as presenting without a specific medical cause.
Migraine can be a hereditary disorder associated with nerve activation. Secondary headaches have a medical cause due to involvement of neck muscles, joints or nerves, the jaw (temporomandibular joint (TMJ)), infections, tumours, hormonal changes or circulatory changes, to name a few. One of the most common causes of secondary headaches is referred to as ‘rebound headache’ and is a result of medication usage. Lifestyle stressors can contribute to or make headaches worse. These include anxiety, anger and depression. Foods containing tyramine can also contribute to or worsen headaches.These include some smoked or fermented meats and aged cheeses.
The most common headache is tension-type headache, followed by rebound headache, migraine, infection, neck or jaw related headaches. Consult your GP or the emergency department (ED) if you experience a headache for the first time or if it is the worst you have experienced to assess whether your headache is serious or life threatening.
How do I know I have a headache?
You might experience the following symptoms if you have a headache:
It is recommended that you consult your GP to diagnose your headache before seeing a physiotherapist or other allied health practitioner.
If you have an excruciating pain in the head, or if it is your first or worst headache, you should consult your GP or attend the nearest ED to rule out any serious condition. You should also consult your GP if the headaches are ongoing or associated with dizziness, disorientation, difficulty speaking, swallowing, falls, nausea, numbness or nystagmus (where the eyes move rapidly and uncontrollably).
In rare circumstances, headaches can occur after prolonged painting (ie, looking up), go-carting, shaving, motor vehicle accidents or infections that can slowly progress with or without dizziness. In these circumstances, you should consult your GP or attend the nearest ED.
A dentist who deals with TMJ conditions should be consulted if your headaches are associated with teeth sensitivity or jaw pain. This is to rule out a dental abscess, Quinsy or Ludwig’s angina.
How can physiotherapy help with headaches?
Your physiotherapist can assess your ergonomics at work and home to recommend appropriate changes to assist your recovery when headaches occur while sitting, sleeping or in other postures. Some headaches are heightened while working with a laptop, personal computer, iPhone or an iPad. Your physiotherapist will recommend the most suitable strategy to improve your condition. Consult your GP if the headache is ongoing at night or when you wake up.
Gentle mobilisation of the spinal joints as well as the spinal or jaw muscles can assist in headache treatment. Mobilisation has an effect on muscles, joints and the nervous system and can improve recovery.
Dry needling or acupuncture
Dry needling or acupuncture can benefit by having a local effect at the site of injury, pain or centrally on the brain, thereby reducing the intensity of the symptom. Local effects include reduction of inflammatory biochemical milieu or increase in fibroblastic activity for healing of inflammation products. MRI studies show that dry needling or acupuncture has an effect on the pain-modulating regions in the brain and the emotional areas. A study on rabbits has demonstrated release of endorphins that can reduce pain.
Botox has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing pain in patients with migraine, headache and jaw (TMJ) pain.
Low-level laser therapy
A systematic review on laser and neck pain reported that low-level laser therapy reduced pain immediately after treatment and up to 22 weeks after completion of treatment in chronic neck pain sufferers.
Spinal taping uses the engineering principle that indicates forces travel to the ‘stiffest’ region, hence the force being exerted on the muscles and joints is transferred to the ‘stiff’ tape. Taping also modifies biomechanics and function with daily activities and thereby assists recovery.
Feldenkrais therapy is a technique that improves postural awareness with functional activities and assists to improve long-standing postural changes and habit.
Negative stress can increase muscle tension and heighten nervous system function. Prolonged stress may increase your headache or jaw pain. It has been reported that anger may be associated with some migraine sufferers. Physiotherapists can recommend relaxation strategies, breathing techniques and simple lifestyle management to enhance your recovery. It is recommended that with prolonged headaches you consult your GP, who can organise an assessment by a psychologist for specific stress management strategies and deal with the challenges you are facing.
How effective is physiotherapy for headache?
Mobilisation or exercises
Research on neck-related headaches demonstrates treatment by a physiotherapist with gentle manipulative therapy and a specific neck exercise is more effective than medication.
Other clinical research shows better effects with medication for migraine and tension-type headache. Your physiotherapist can help with migraines associated with neck and jaw pain. They can also recommend specific pain treatments and rehabilitation exercises for other headaches and temporomandibular disorders, dizziness, benign postural positional vertigo (BPPV) and Bell’s palsy.
Biofeedback has been recommended in the US guidelines, followed by stress-management strategies. Your physiotherapist can help to reduce the intensity of migraines associated with neck and jaw pain and provide preventative strategies. They can recommend specific pain treatments and rehabilitation exercises for other headaches as well as temporomandibular disorders, dizziness, BPPV and Bell’s palsy.
Research demonstrates that the forward head posture (in slumped positions while sitting) could contribute to unilateral migrane and tension-type headache. Your physiotherapist can assist with ergonomic strategies for sitting and different functional positions for long-term improvement. They may apply a specific spinal taping program to improve your spinal biomechanics and posture.
Dry needling and acupuncture are sought by patients with headache and migraine. Researchers in acupuncture and dry needling find that needling can benefit patients with headache and neck pain. Data from multiple studies suggests that acupuncture and dry needling may be useful adjuncts in the treatment of idiopathic headaches. Physiotherapists find that a multi-modal approach combining dry needling or acupuncture with patient-centred exercises and spinal mobilisation is more beneficial.
A systematic review suggested that patients with neck-related headache may benefit from laser for their neck pain and thereby help with their headache.
The Cefaly transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator has been demonstrated to help patients with headaches and migraine. The Cefaly may be helpful to reduce the intensity of migraines and other headaches in some patients, and should be trialled at home over a period of three months. Patients whose migraines or headaches are sensitive to touch in the forehead or to the Cefaly stimulation may not find it as helpful.
What can I do at home?
Before self-treating, it is important to consult your GP to rule out whether your headache needs further evaluation or investigation. If your headaches have a contribution from the neck, jaw (TMJ) or spine or due to your posture, your physiotherapist will be able to assist you with home management strategies.
These home strategies will vary from person to person and therefore need to be performed with caution:
How long until I feel better?
It is difficult to predict how long each person’s headache can take to improve.
See your GP or nearest ED if it is your first or worst headache, a ‘thunderclap’ or excruciating headache.