Dizziness is a common problem, especially among older adults. In fact, for people over the age of 65, dizziness is one of the most common reasons for doctor visits and hospitalizations. Regardless of the cause of dizziness, the sooner you get help, the better. Physical therapists help people experiencing dizziness ease their symptoms, reduce their risk of falling, and get back to the activities they enjoy.
Dizziness is a feeling of spinning, floating, or lightheadedness. Dizziness, and the balance problems that may come with it, can be caused by many factors, including:
- Inner ear disorders (vestibular disorders) such as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo.
- Injury or trauma to the inner ear.
- Disruption in the network of nerves between the inner ear and the eyes that helps to stabilize our vision.
- Conditions such as low blood pressure or low blood sugar.
- Use of many medications, vitamins, or supplements.
- Diseases such as arthritis in the neck or diabetes.
- Brain disorders such as Parkinson disease or stroke.
How Does It Feel?
Some people have a spinning sensation (vertigo) that happens when they change their head position. Others have a general feeling of unsteadiness, a rocking sensation as if on a boat, or lightheadedness. Dizziness can result in:
- Difficulty walking.
- Feeling tired.
- Decreased ability to concentrate.
Above all, dizziness can increase the risk of falling — a serious health concern for older adults. The earlier you get treatment, the better.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
The good news is that most dizziness and balance disorders can be successfully treated. Dizziness and balance problems are certainly not an expected part of aging.
Your physical therapist can perform tests to determine the cause of your dizziness and assess your risk of falling. There is often more than one cause of dizziness and imbalance. Depending on your test results, your physical therapist may recommend additional testing or a consultation with your physician. They also may refer you to a specialist.
Your physical therapist will create a personalized treatment plan for you based on your medical evaluation and your goals for recovery. Their primary focus will be to manage your dizziness and help you get moving again.
During your recovery, your physical therapist will teach you strategies to help you cope with your symptoms. To design your treatment program, they may ask you:
- Do certain activities or chores around the house cause you to become dizzy? Your physical therapist may show you how to perform these activities in a different way to help reduce the dizziness.
- Have simple activities become difficult? Do these activities cause fatigue and more dizziness? Your physical therapist will help you work through these symptoms, so you can return to your roles at home and work.
Physical therapy treatments for dizziness can take many forms. Your unique program will depend on your unique problems. Your treatment plan might include exercises to:
- Improve your balance.
- Improve the network of nerves between the inner ear and the eyes that helps to stabilize your vision during head turns.
- Improve your strength, flexibility, and heart health to increase your overall physical health and well-being.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
All physical therapists are prepared through education and clinical experience to evaluate and treat people who experience dizziness and imbalance. You may want to consider:
- A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with neurological problems or who has a practice with a neurological or vestibular rehabilitation focus.
- A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy or who completed a residency or fellowship in neurologic physical therapy. This physical therapist has demonstrated advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.
You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.
General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist (or any other health care provider):
- Get recommendations from family, friends, or other health care providers.
- When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists' experience in helping people with inner ear problems.
- During your first visit with the physical therapist, be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms better or worse.
The American Physical Therapy Association believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for their visit with their health care provider.
The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence about physical therapy treatments for dizziness. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed abstract of the article or to free full text, so you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
Alrwaily M, Whitney SL. Vestibular rehabilitation of older adults with dizziness. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2011;44:473-96. Article Summary on PubMed.
Reviewed and revised in 2020 by Carrie W. Hoppes, PT, PhD, board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic and orthopaedic physical therapy and Karen H. Lambert, PT, DPT, board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy.
Authored in 2011 by Bridgett Wallace, PT, DPT; Laura O. Morris, PT, board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy; Bob Wellmon, PT, PhD, board-certified clinical specialist in neurologic physical therapy; and APTA's Neurology Section.