“I was dizzy for over ten years…”

In 2002, Lydia Volek had a sudden onset of dizziness and was told she would probably never get better. After learning to live with it for over a decade, Lydia stumbled upon a study to treat dizziness at NeuRA. As our guest blogger this week, Lydia tells us how participating in this research turned her life around in just a few short minutes.

Lydia: My dizziness appeared suddenly and was extremely unpleasant. I couldn’t look up without everything spinning and when I bent down I felt like I was going to fall on my head. It’s not very pleasant, I can tell you that much. I had to be really careful getting in the bath or on the bus; I had to watch my steps and not do anything too quickly.

Dizziness can be physically debilitating and extremely distressing.

Dizziness can be physically debilitating and extremely distressing.

I was really frustrated to begin with and then I became worried about what it might mean. The specialist told me my condition was benign and probably wouldn’t get worse – but also may not get better. The treatment I received didn’t really help that much and so I started to learn to live with it. When you know that you don’t have a choice, you just wipe it from your mind and keep going – that’s all you can do.

I felt dizzy on and off for over 10 years – probably more on than off. This was how I lived until I heard about the study at NeuRA and thought ‘Ah! This might be the way for me!’

Lydia was assessed by the study team from the Falls and Balance Research Group at NeuRA. They recorded her medical history and levels of anxiety and depression; they tested her vision, strength and balance and measured her cardiovascular health, including blood pressure, and inner ear function. 

The team determined that the cause of Lydia’s dizziness was a displacement of calcium crystals in her inner ear – a condition called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. She was offered physiotherapy to remove the dislodged particles.

Lydia: The treatment I received was very easy and simple; the physiotherapist rolled my head in a certain way and was finished in a few minutes. I felt very good straight away; I could turn around with my eyes closed and not feel like falling. I was so surprised! To tell you the truth, in that moment I thought, my goodness, why didn’t anyone tell me about this before? But I suppose that’s why they’re doing this research.

Now, a few weeks later, my vertigo is still gone. I can look at the sky and see the birds in the tops of the trees and not feel like I’m going to fall over. It’s little things like this that make a big difference to my life. From now on, if I meet someone who’s been told to live with dizziness, I’m going to tell them to go and get treated. There is life beyond this!

We are still seeking volunteers for our study, so if you would like to participate, please contact Mayna from the Dizziness Research Team on (02) 9399 1255 or at m.ratanapongleka@neura.edu.au.


A comment from the NeuRA study team: We believe that Lydia’s condition was not properly treated when she first experienced symptoms. What probably happened was the dislodged particles in her ear canals were not completely removed, which led to a continuation of her symptoms.

Dizziness can be physically debilitating and extremely distressing. Despite being relatively common in middle-aged and older people, we don’t fully understand its causes and, as a result, sufferers often receive a wrong diagnosis or inappropriate treatment, with little or no relief of their symptoms.

Dr Jasmine Menant measures a patient's blood pressure

Study leader Dr Jasmine Menant measures a patient’s blood pressure.

With this study, we hope to come to a better understanding of the causes of dizziness. We are also assessing the effectiveness of individually tailored treatment plans that include one or more therapies; currently, many patients are offered only one of these therapies and continue to experience symptoms because their dizziness has not been completely treated.

The therapies we offer the participants in our study, depending on their assessment, are:

  • vestibular rehabilitation for peripheral vestibular (inner ear) conditions, administered by a physiotherapist;
  • a home exercise program for balance, strength and walking impairments;
  • cognitive-behavioural therapy for those people experiencing anxiety and depression;
  • a comprehensive medical and medication assessment by a clinician for those people with other medical conditions, such as low blood pressure, or those experiencing side-effects from medication.

We hope that by improving how we diagnose the causes of dizziness, and by offering an individualised selection of treatments, we can improve the quality of life for the many Australians like Lydia who have been told that they just have to learn to live with the condition.

Read more about the study here on Australian Ageing Agenda.



“Help me, I’m terrified of falling!”

Being afraid of falling is very common – and not something you should have to live with, says NeuRA researcher Joanne Lo.

Last week I went to visit an eighty-year-old woman who was terrified of having a fall and ending up in a nursing home. ‘Florence’ loves her sunny unit and enjoys the independence of living in her own place and, until recently, was a very active and confident woman.

Earlier this year, however, she had a particularly bad fall on the stairs to her apartment block. She now lives with a fear that weighs on her every day. Her fear of falling is so overpowering that she avoids any activity that might be the least bit risky, such as walking the short distance to her local shops.

Meeting people like Florence reminds me how far we’ve come in the last decade in terms of what we can offer to older people at risk of falling. Not so long ago, if you were elderly and fearful like Florence, you might not have dared to venture outside and possibly become more frail, depressed and socially isolated.

NeuRA researcher Joanne Lo is part of the falls and balance research group.

But as a result of research from around the world – in which NeuRA’s Prof Stephen Lord and his team have played an important and active role – we have gotten better at helping people fall less. At the heart of these improvements is a simple battery of tests developed at NeuRA, known as FallScreen.

We use FallScreen to test a person’s physical function; for example, we measure how much a person’s body sways while they attempt to stand still on a foam mat. We use the results to predict a person’s risk of having a fall in the next year.

In the postural sway test, the patient attempts to stand as still as possible while we measure how much their body sways.

We know what to test for because, early in his research career here at NeuRA, Prof Lord assessed hundreds of older adult volunteers to see what was different about those who fell during the subsequent year. He identified five primary areas of physical function that contributed to an individual’s risk of falling: their vision, the speed of their reactions, leg sensation, muscle strength and balance. He then devised simple methods of assessing these different areas and the assessment tool known as FallScreen was born.

Studies have found that FallScreen allows us to predict future fallers with an accuracy of 75%. Why is this important? Because if you know you’re at risk, then you can do something about it.

In Florence’s case, I assessed her as being at moderate risk of falling in the next year. She was surprised; in her fearful state, she had felt she was at very high risk. I was able to show her specific exercises to strengthen her leg muscles and talked about ways of addressing her fear so that she could continue to exercise confidently.

The FallScreen assessment tool is now being used in hospitals and clinics around the world. This means that health practitioners have a scientifically-validated way of testing where the potential deficits are in their patient’s physical function and are better able to target these areas in their treatment. This is good news for maintaining the patient’s independence and helping them to prevent a fall in the future.

If you think you are at risk of falling, or have a fear of falling, I can’t urge you strongly enough ask your GP for a referral to a falls clinic for an assessment. There are many things you can do to reduce your risk; being assessed is just the beginning.

For example, at NeuRA we are currently looking into ways of improving exercise programs, such as using an iPad app as a digital personal trainer. This is just one of many ways we are trying to reduce falls in older people. If you’d like to find out more, please visit our website.

‘Exergaming’ – The new way for older Australians to keep fit

Insufficient levels of physical activity in adult Australians are increasing. In 2007 and 2008, approximately 62% of adults did not meet recommended ‘moderate’ physical activity guidelines.

Strength, mobility, aerobic capacity, energy, anxiety, depression and reduction in fall risk in older populations have been shown to improve following increased physical activity interventions. Additionally, there are recently published findings suggesting high levels of physical activity are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Continue reading