Woman: I was devastated -- I didn't know what was wrong with me. I couldn't keep my balance and I was seeing double.
Man: I woke up, I couldn't stand up I was bouncing off the walls. I mean, literally bouncing off the walls.
Woman: I couldn't think straight, I couldn't walk. I was staggering all over the place and I couldn't walk a straight line, not even with a cane -- I wasn't focusing. I couldn't communicate with my grandchildren or my family. They thought was I was getting senile because the vertigo -- it upset my balance completely.
Narrator: These people are discussing a problem common to many older adults -- a problem with balance. Balance problems can have a serious impact on an older person's life. In fact, balance problems are one reason older people fall.
A. Julianna Gulya, M.D.: Well, balance problems are really a tremendous concern for older people because with a loss of balance you are a set-up for a fall and once you fall, you are a set-up for a hip fracture and that has a whole series of consequences to one's ability to maintain independence and one's normal activities of daily living.
Narrator: Our body's balance system is what allows us to move, stand erect, walk, and run without falling. We are able to maintain balance with the help of our vestibular system which is located in the inner ear.
A.Julianna Gulya, M.D.: The best analogy for how we maintain our balance is if you think of a three-legged stool, there are three systems that work with each other -- kind of organized by the brain -- to help us maintain our balance or another way of looking at it, our orientation in space. The inner-ear organ of balance is the labyrinth and there are three semi-circular canals, oriented at right angles to one another.
Each one of these semi-circular canals is filled with fluid. Each semi-circular canal also has hair cells, so-called because of the stereocilia that project from their surface. Say you turn your head -- that sets up motion in the fluid of the semi-circular canals. The fluid movement bends the stereocilia, stimulating them. They then transfer this stimulation to the tiny nerve fibers that are associated with them.
The tiny nerve fibers collect and join to form the vestibular, or balance nerves. The balance nerve then sends the stimulation to the brain centers for balance. Another leg of the stool is the visual system or seeing. That also transmits information to the brain. The third system is the musculoskeletal system, or your muscles and joints. They also have receptors, telling you where you are in space.
Narrator: Some of the symptoms a person with a balance disorder might have are vertigo -- or feeling as if you or the things around you are spinning, dizziness, light-headedness, and blurred vision. Some people also experience nausea, diarrhea, faintness, or changes in heart rate or blood pressure.
Woman: The most difficult symptom to deal with is the constant dizziness because it affects everything you do. It makes it difficult to think, to read, to work. I found that working was impossible at my worst.
Narrator: There are many ways to treat balance disorders. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, see your doctor.
Lloyd Minor, M.D.: The message we want to get across to our patients is that we believe that most people, all people, can get better and we're going to work with you to help you to get better.