Vestibular rehabilitation for dizziness

In the October 19 issue of Annals of Internal Medicine is a study from the UK of the effectiveness of primary care-based vestibular rehabilitation for chronic dizziness. Primary care patients with a history of labyrinthine dizziness that had lasted at least two months were randomized in a single blind fashion to receive nurse-taught vestibular rehabilitation exercises or usual care; after three months the patients who had received the usual care were crossed-over to vestibular rehabilitation.

The rehabilitation exercises consisted of increasingly aggressive maneuvers designed to stress the vestibular system and provoke dizziness (such as turning the head with eyes open, then closed). These exercises were to be done once or twice daily. The details of the vestibular rehabilitation, and a detailed patient handout explaining the exercises, are available at the Annals website. Patients were evaluated using various questionnaires and forms, and with a device that measured postural stability.

The results indicated that patients did indeed improve more with the vestibular rehabilitation than without.

I found the results of this study to be frustrating. There are two things that I would have liked to find out: what percentage of patients in each group felt, say, “cured or almost completely cured” or “very substantially better” and whether or not there was any difference in the number of falls in either group. The authors bombard us with data, but do not answer these simple questions directly.

I am happy to hear that the Vertigo Symptom Scale was 13.3 in the usual care group and only 9.88 in the rehabilitation group. I am delighted that the Dizziness Handicap Inventory went from 35.88 to 31.09. I am impressed that the Short Form-36 (physical functioning) was 25.95 vs. 27.14. But what does all this mean? The authors do state that 67% of the treated group reported clinically significant improvement, compared with 38% of the usual care group, but what exactly constitutes clinically significant improvement? Did any of these patients actually fall, before or during the study? Nothing about this issue.

Since so many of my older patients complain of unsteadiness on their feet, I would love to recommend exercises to help them. Most likely, vestibular rehabilitation would be helpful and effective. But it would be nice to have some simpler, more comprehensible data about it. I understand that tables full of statistically significant numbers are necessary to get published, but it should be possible to sneak in a patient’s actual assessment of treatment efficacy somewhere.

One thought on “Vestibular rehabilitation for dizziness

  1. Lucy Yardley

    [Author’s comments]

    In this particular study we only used validated questionnaires (as recommended) but in our previous efficacy trial (reference below) we did ask the simple question of whether people felt better, worse or unchanged, and 6 months post-treatment 69.0% of the treated patients said they felt better compared with 37.1% of controls. Although complete ‘cure’ is rare in treatment for chronic dizziness, in the current study we do report figures for ‘cured’, i.e. ‘at three month follow-up 19/82 (23%) people in the vestibular rehabilitation group had no provoked symptoms at all, compared with 5/87 (6%) in the usual medical care group (relative risk = 4.03; 1.58 to 10.30).’

    Yardley, L., Beech, S., Zander, L., Evans, T. & Weinman, J. (1998). A randomised controlled trial of exercise therapy for dizziness and vertigo in primary care. British Journal of General Practice, 48, 1136-1140.

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