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Apr 06, 2021

Rock Valley therapists doing great work in the world of vestibular disorders

It was a time in Julie Sweeney’s life she will never forget.

A dark, depressing struggle.

Dizziness had engulfed her, but not the garden-variety, sudden-movement kind of head-spinning dizzy. No, this was so profound she could not walk. On the floor and on all fours, Sweeney often found herself clutching doorways, unbalanced, lightheaded, grabbing for anything to help her navigate those dreadful moments.

It was the most frustrating — and helpless — period of her life. Helpless until Sweeney discovered  Rock Valley Physical Therapy.

Unbeknownst to her, Sweeney was suffering from benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), the most common of the two dozen vestibular disorders. Common, it must be noted, does not equate to simple when dealing with — and treating — the inner ear, the brain, and the processing of  sensory information involved with controlling balance and eye movements.

If disease or injury damages these processing areas, vestibular disorders can result. Vestibular disorders can also result from or be worsened by genetic or environmental conditions, or occur for unknown reasons.

More often, vestibular disorders include superior semicircular canal dehiscence, acoustic neuroma, perilymph fistula, ototoxicity, enlarged vestibular aqueduct, migraine-associated vertigo, and Mal de Débarquement. Other problems related to vestibular dysfunction include complications from aging, autoimmune disorders, and allergies.

It can be complicated and life-altering.

“The feeling is like the floor or the chair you are on are going to fall away from you and you are floating, even if you know you are holding onto that wall,’’ Swenney said of her vestibular disorder and her struggles before finding a therapist that found her relief.

“Just trying to stand is a major physical effort in order to maintain a vertical position,’’ she added. “I imagine that someone observing me would have guessed  I was terribly drunk, totally unstable in walking or sitting. Even when laying on the bed or floor, the world is wobbling around you. It seems as if you will fall off of the floor. It’s truly scary.‘’

There was, Sweeney said, never an easy moment. When struggling with a vestibular disorder, there are no days off.

“The largest fear is of steps,’’ she added.  “You can’t seem to believe that the next step will be there when you put your foot down. You are afraid that you will float but your mind reminds you that you will fall, not float. When sitting, you aren’t able to focus your thoughts. You can see well, but the wobbly feeling doesn’t allow you to concentrate or trust what you are thinking or doing. You feel totally helpless.’’

This was Sweeney’s world for more than four months, seeing four different doctors, undergoing a barrage of tests — including imaging — and taking a variety of medications. She even sought a dentist for relief.

Near the end of  that winding and confusing path, Sweeney was referred to Rock Valley Physical Therapy, where she was introduced to Jennifer Jasper (DPT, Level One Physical Therapist), one of a bevy of skilled Rock Valley therapists with advanced training and work in vestibular rehabilitation.

Jasper and Kristin Weaver (DPT, Level One Physical Therapist based in Moline, Ill.) have teamed to advance their education in the area, ho[ping to better serve the needs of those they encounter with vestibular disorders.

And there are many.

When a frustrated Sweeney saw Jasper, the Rock Valley physical therapist engaged Sweeney in a thorough screening process and a lengthy question and answer period. Then, as Sweeney puts it: “Taught me a move that changed everything.’’

“There are crystals in your ear that get into the canals and being out of place they can make people dizzy,’’ said Jasper, based at Rock Valley’s Rock Island, Illinois, clinic. “That “move’’ is after a screening  and understanding what we were dealing with. If one needs to see a doctor we will tell them to see a doctor. But it was not difficult to see what she (Sweeney) was dealing with and there was an answer. It was a simple fix, some simple maneuvers. We will put people through different head positions to roll the crystal back to where it should be.’’

It was the relief Sweeney desperately sought and wondered if she would ever find.

“I am to sit on the edge of a couch or bed,’’ Sweeney says of the critical exercise Jasper shared with her. “I’m to turn my head to a shoulder and then lay down on the opposite side that my head is facing. Immediately sit up and turn your head to the opposite shoulder and again lay down to the opposing side. Alternate these moves for about 20 times. The crystals will go back to their correct position in your ear canals. She knew from the beginning what the issue was and taught me everything right there.’’

Until finding Jasper and Rock Valley, Sweeney did not believe help was there to be found. Relief Weaver and Jasper want all to know exists. Treatment that could save months of struggle, extra doctor visits or imaging-related expenditures.

“This came after four months of driving while trying not to move my head to either side and holding on to walls while I moved around the office,’’ Sweeney said of the challenges to function at home and at work. “I had an answer to once again being normal. That’s four months of my bosses and friends teasing me about drinking 24/7 and wondering what my problem was. My poor husband was at a loss to help me, but watched and helped me navigate daily living.’’

Weaver and Jasper, both modest to a fault, are tireless in their pursuit of improved oculomotor examination, diagnosis and treatment, balance assessments and manual therapy focused on musculoskeletal deficits causing balance issues. Passionate about their mission, they want the world to know there is help for vertigo, for dizziness, lightheadedness and to understand therapy to address these disorders is there for the taking.

“We both had a background in this field during post-graduate (doctoral) work,’’ said Jasper, with a smiling nod from Weaver. The two have worked hand- in-hand with numerous other  therapists trained in treating such issues.

“It helped to have that (background) as a base to work from,’’ Jasper added. “We want people to know there are options before — and after in some cases — of imaging and medications, that many of the vertiginous issues they deal with can be helped through assessment and therapy.’’

Weaver says inner-ear issues can arise at any age and can be brought on by contact, a variety of long standing health issues brought on by neuritis or labyrinthitis. They, however, see more patients past the age of 40, but there is no age limit on vestibular disorders.

“Older adults is what we have seen so far,’’ said Weaver, who like Jasper, is engaging in her approach and fiercely dedicated to positive patient outcomes. “There isn’t a true understanding of why they come on. Blood pressure and migraines can be specific to the ear and pressure issues. And there could be trauma attached. The process of understanding these issues is ongoing.  I was fortunate for my clinicals to deal with a great deal. What is troublesome is you  will have people referred to you that have no idea this is something we do.’’

Today, Sweeney is healthy and happy. When BPPV creeps back into her life — and it does once a year — she turns quickly to the exercises taught her by Jasper — and all is well. There is a follow-up visit if needed.

“Being given such a simple move to help myself made living normally possible,’’ added Sweeney. “ In the years since, the BPPV comes back once or twice a year, usually during winter. All I have to do is the move that the physical therapist taught me and life goes on, no meds or reaction to meds. I am forever grateful to that therapist for allowing me to have a functional life.’’

For Jasper and Weaver, both goal-oriented, it’s simply about patient success and bettering lives and options for those struggling. Both believe vestibular disorders  can be found — and treated — with a simple examination. The two are also firm believers in advanced education and up-to-minute best treatment options for all they serve.

“What we do is about better lives and establishing relationships with people,’’ Weaver said, noting the eyes are  ‘windows to our health’.’’ “All of this is about educating people, how this can happen, why it can happen and what option we have to fix the problem.’’

With two gifted therapists at the ready.

By: Johnny Marx, Storyteller