Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Balance training helps overcome MS symptoms

The Herald Bulletin

ANDERSON, Ind. -- Susan Townsend's walker sits in the corner of the classroom where she teaches fifth grade in Summitville.

It used to help her walk, but she hasn't needed it lately.

"It's more of a bookshelf now than anything else," Townsend said.

Townsend used the walker for about four months earlier this year after she began chemotherapy treatments for multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed in 1987, when she was just 18, and her condition worsened to the point where she needed a walker this year before age 40.

But she doesn't need it now. She credits St. John's Regional Balance Center for her improvements. Her therapist at the balance center credits new techniques and equipment made to retrain the body's senses to work together better, letting patients like Townsend regain their balance and independence.

Patients unlike Townsend may benefit, too, according to Brock Haut, her physical therapist at the balance center.

"We get 20-year-olds to 90-year-olds," he said.

They come in with problems like dizziness, vertigo and loss of balance.

Some common causes for dizziness are inner ear infections and injuries to the inner ear after head trauma. Common causes for balance problems are inactivity, Parkinson's Disease, MS and orthopedic problems.

Therapists make assessments of the patients they see based on a variety of tests, then ask a question -- will treatment help?

"If the person can't be helped, we talk to the family and caregivers about safety strategies to prevent falls," Haut said.

If he thinks treatment may help, he'll give the patient a therapy plan.

Townsend's plan was simple. She practiced. She walked around things, walked while looking up, then while looking down. She took strides with resistance from a weight machine and did "ball hand-offs," moving a ball between her hands at different positions.

She also sat down, and stood up, and sat down, and stood up.

"When I read the exercises, I thought they were silly, simple exercises, but when I tried them, they were really challenging," she said.

So challenging, in fact, she had to endure some pain.

"I had to walk on my tiptoes and heels," said Townsend who, with MS, doesn't have steady legs. "Oh my gosh, that hurts."

But whatever pain she withstood paid off, letting her move more easily than she has in years.

All it took was a referral from her doctor and a few visits a week with a therapist at the balance center.

Because of the complexity of the human body's balancing act, not all balance problems are the same.

"In a normal, healthy individual, the senses of touch, position, vision and inner ear motion sensors work together with the brain," said Haut, who has extensive training in balance rehabilitation. "If you have a balance disorder, however, you may have a problem in any one or combination of these systems."

The balance center, located in Carl D. Erskine Rehabilitation Center on St. John's campus, has several tools to help pinpoint what's causing balance problems.

Once the staff members get to know the patient, they can add exercises designed especially to meet the patient's needs.

For Townsend, they practiced household chores, like some she does at home, at the clinic.

While the therapy helped Townsend leave behind her walker, it can help others quit prescription drugs (under the supervision of their physicians) and solve months of confusion and misdiagnosis, Haut said.

Fifty-three months usually pass from a person's initial dizziness or balance complaint to a personal physician until a proper diagnosis and treatment is undertaken at a place like the balance center, Haut said. Misdiagnosed problems and prescription drugs that offer only temporary solutions to the problems contribute to that length of time.

It is estimated that as many as 40 percent of adults have problems with dizziness or imbalance that are severe enough to report to a doctor, according to the balance center. For some, balance problems can cause severe disruptions in daily life, making people unsteady and causing the elderly to fall.

In addition to the risk of falling, these disorders can shorten attention span, disrupt normal sleep patterns and cause excessive fatigue, according to a balance center spokesman.

"Problems with dizziness or lack of balance are often dismissed as being unimportant, or as simply an unavoidable part of growing older," Haut said.

It usually takes a few visits a week for a few months until patients take full benefit from therapy.

Doctors believe a common cause for balance problems may be lack of physical activity, something common in the elderly as well as many younger people.

Townsend, who lives on farmland in Gaston with her husband and 16-year-old daughter, prefers to be active, she says. But because her MS symptoms fluctuate, she has had trouble getting into a routine, leaving her with some insecurities.

"When I fell before, I didn't know why I fell -- I just lost balance and fell," Townsend said.

The therapy with Haut has reduced those falls, giving the school teacher the wherewithal to do the things she used to do confidently.

Townsend calls it retraining the brain.

"I live in the country. I have a clothesline. I put clothes on the line this summer for the first time in two years," Townsend said. "I think it's retrained my brain to do those simple things."

Distributed by The Associated Press