Human Pong

I arrived at the health centre on a Monday morning to begin a two-week course of vestibular rehabilitation. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and hadn’t done any research about the procedure online, before turning up to my appointment. I was feeling optimistic, as I had read stories about others who had benefitted from this type of therapy. Before starting the therapy, I would be doing a Computerized Dynamic Platform Posturography test. This test can be used to assess and evaluate the relationship between the three parts of the balance system; the inner ear, vision, and the sensors in the muscles and joints.

A nurse greeted me, and I followed her into a small room. She asked me to remove my boots and then inquired about my name, age, height, and whether I had been in the health centre previously.

Next, I was asked to stand up and the nurse began to attach a safety harness to me. I put my arms through the main part of the harness, like a waistcoat. She fastened it at the front and then secured another part between my legs; pulling the loose end of the strap tightly. I was then asked to walk into an open-backed grey booth. The nurse clipped thick metal clasps – similar to the kind rock climbers’ use – through the two loops of the harness, close to each of my shoulders; connecting them to two straps that were hanging from a horizontal pole at the top of the booth. She then helped me to position my feet, slightly apart, on the metal plate at the base of the booth. I stood, wearing only socks on my feet, my body strapped into place inside the booth; quickly realising the coldness of the metal plate, and feeling slightly vulnerable, yet also intrigued as to what was going to happen next.

I was facing the inside wall of the booth, and in front of my eyes was a blank screen, slightly smaller than an A4 piece of paper. My first task was to focus on the screen with my eyes open, keeping my balance. I assumed a computer was recording any shift in my body weight as I endeavoured to remain steady. Next, I had to close my eyes. I could feel my body sway as I went into darkness. I then had to open my eyes again, and within a moment I felt my surroundings move. The metal platform and the booth walls moved slightly and I was asked to maintain my balance. I was aware that the nurse was standing behind me during the entire procedure, and in addition to the harness that was fastened securely, I knew her hands were ready to support me if I fell. I then had to close my eyes again whilst the plate or the booth, or maybe both (I wasn’t sure) was moving. It was difficult to keep my balance and I stumbled slightly. Finally, I was asked to open my eyes again whilst the plate was moving. On opening my eyes I felt a wave of dizziness, but nothing too severe.

Next, the screen in front of me was switched on and a stickman, enclosed in a line square, appeared on a blue background. The nurse explained that I was the stick man; when I moved, so did the little man on the screen! The movement seemed to be controlled by my leaning and the pressure my feet were applying to the metal plate. There were numerous ‘jeugos’ – she described the tests as ‘games’. The concepts were simple, and the first ‘game’ resembled something very similar to a human version of the old Atari computer game, Pong. A circle – I imagined this as the ‘ball’ – moved predictably across the screen, back and forth between two vertical lines – the ‘players’. The aim of the ‘game’ was for me to follow the movement of the ‘ball’ with my stickman body. The ‘players’ unlike in the original Pong were stationary. I swayed from side to side on the metal platform, trying to keep on course with the ‘ball’. This was more difficult than I’d anticipated, and my stickman body flew around erratically for a few shots before I was able to control my movements and balance well enough to roughly follow the ‘gameplay’. Just as I thought I was getting the hang of it, the speed of the ‘ball’ increased so that it was being ‘hit’ between ‘players’ at a much faster pace. Again my stickman body was flinging itself all over the place, and I found it difficult to keep up with the ‘ball’. This Pong-like ‘game’ was repeated so that the ‘players’ changed positions and were represented as horizontal lines at the top and bottom of the screen with the ‘ball’ and me moving upwards and downwards with each shot. The final Pong ‘game’ was played whilst the platform made some movements which of course made it more challenging.

Pong

The final ‘game’ comprised of basic red and yellow-coloured squares that looked like representations of bricks. Eight squares were arranged in the centre of the screen, together forming a rough oval shape. All the squares started off as red, apart from one that was yellow. This square would remain yellow for 10 seconds before changing back to being red. The consecutive square in the oval shape would then turn yellow for 10 seconds before changing back to being red, and so on. The aim of this ‘game’ was to move around the oval shape, with my stickman body, to each consecutive yellow square. When the ‘game’ began, an off-balanced wobble of my legs caused the stickman to be launched again wildly across the screen, before I managed to take more control. The movement of the metal platform beneath my feet caused the sensation of being on a boat that was very sensitive to movement. The more I swayed towards the yellow squares, the more the surrounding booth moved, making me feel unbalanced; causing unsteady movements of my stickman. I played the ‘game’ to the best of my ability, though it was difficult to maintain position inside the squares, and my stickman swayed around the perimeters; dipping in and out of them. With some time, however, my confidence and ability increased and I started to feel competitive. The ‘game’ was repeated, with the yellow square moving around the oval shape in the opposite direction, and again with more sensitivity and movement from the foot-plate.

vestibualr rehabilitation screen

 

Once the ‘games’ were completed, the nurse printed some results. I saw some sets of bar graphs and values on the screen in front of me, but they weren’t discussed. I was told to stand still and wait a moment. I supposed these results would inform the doctor as to how well my balance system was functioning, enabling them to tailor the therapy to my needs.

Dizzy Dollies

When I was a child, I used to play a game with my sister, called Dizzy Dollies. I don’t know if this was an actual game, or just something my mum thought up as a way of keeping us occupied. The game involved spinning around, usually on grass, with arms outstretched like birds. We’d spin; our arms feeling light from the rotational force, until the dizziness became too much for our brains and bodies to compete with, and we’d fall down with a joyful thud of giggles.

Since my hearing loss, that feeling of dizziness a few moments before falling is always with me; following me around like an unwanted shadow. I now have a sense of dizzy instability, much stronger and more frequent than before my recent vertigo attack. When I’m walking around my apartment, I feel OK. My brain is accustomed to navigating my body around the small enclosed space. However, when I go outside, my stabilisers are removed and my vulnerability is exposed to the vastness of my surroundings. The movement of people on the streets and the cars on the busy roads cause a rapid development of confusion in my balance, and in turn my ability to steer my body with composure is put to the test. When I’m in a crowd, or if I turn around and see someone standing close to me, I immediately feel off balance and the Dizzy Dolly feeling hits again. Every three or four steps I feel a heaviness building inside my head combining with the ever-present pressure in my ears. This weight causes a sensation of my head being forced downwards; a feeling that quickly spreads through my body. My legs become heavy, and the floor seems to lurch towards me. I am constantly trying to find my balance. Sometimes I feel nauseated. Other times I need to sit down to regain my balance. I feel dizzy if I look around too much or too quickly. Certain types of lighting also seem to affect my steadiness, especially in supermarkets or department stores. I’ve noticed some difficulty focusing my eyes now. Sometimes when I try to concentrate my sight on a small area, my focus drifts away and I have to keep forcing it back. I don’t feel comfortable walking close to people with walking sticks, pushchairs, prams, and small dogs, in the worry that I will lose my balance and fall on them.

For the past month the only advice I have been given is to rest. And I have rested. Yet, if anything, the feeling of dizziness when I am outside seems to be worse than ever. It occurred to me that maybe resting could now hindering my progress.

Whilst searching on the internet for practical advice, I came across a blog entitled ‘Life with Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss’. It was written by a girl named Dana, who had experienced sudden hearing loss in the summer of 2007. In her post ‘Be Active’ Dana describes her return to college after losing the hearing in her left ear. She writes about the challenge of her ‘roller coaster’ bus commute, and the instability she felt when riding the escalator:

‘I made my way to the escalator, gripped the railing firmly, and focus my eyes on my feet to prevent losing my orientation on the long descent to the metro platformThe movement, the echoy noises in the metro, and a constant sense of chaos.’

These experiences were incredibly similar to mine. I felt some comfort in knowing that someone else had also undergone these challenges when traveling on public transport, following a hearing loss. Dana explains how her daily commute became easier during the successive months. Then over Christmas she worked from home, and didn’t have to worry about her hearing and balance. When she returned to her classes in the New Year, she comments again on her commute:

 ‘The bus ride to the metro was just as terrifying as it has been my first week in September. All progress that I’d made on my balance was lost.’

Dana consulted with an audiologist who carried out extensive tests of her hearing, eyes and balance. She also listened to Dana’s story about how her balance had improved during the autumn, and after asking follow-up questions the audiologist gave her a simple instruction:

“You’re healthy but your balance is off. From here on out you need to retrain your brain constantly where your new balance is. And to do that, you must simply stay active. That’s your prescription – to stay active.”

Dana summarizes that ‘During my several sedentary weeks in December, my brain had completely forgotten all of the lessons I had taught it.’   

Maybe this is what has happened to me. I have been told to rest, and resting has enabled me to feel stable in the small surroundings of my apartment. But by resting every day, and spending a lot of time indoors, my brain hasn’t needed to work to constantly recalibrate my balance. Perhaps I need to retrain my brain to manage my stability in more challenging situations. Maybe I need to become accustomed to being outside again; to feel more confident traveling on the Metro, riding escalators, and walking on busy streets. Maybe the best thing I can do to help shake this Dizzy Dolly feeling is to ‘stay active’.

In the lack of any better suggestions, this is the prescription I am choosing to fill. I have had enough of resting. I am an active person. I enjoy walking and running, and being outside. I have rested enough. This condition is unpredictable, and I can’t spend my days waiting to feel better. I certainly don’t want to be always waiting for the next vertigo attack. I need to focus on continuing with my life as best as possible. I will endeavour to ‘stay active’ and attempt to lose this unwelcome shadow of dizziness.

A note on diuretics (and more medical terminology)

Less than three weeks after my consultation with the new Ears Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist I went for my referral meeting with the nephrologist (kidney doctor) to ask her opinion as to whether she thought it was safe for me to take diuretics. Diuretics are drugs which reduce fluid accumulation in the body. They are commonly used in the management of the symptoms of vertigo, hearing loss, tinnitus and aural fullness in patients with Meniere’s disease or endolymphatic hydrops. Endolymphatic hydrops is an increase in the pressure of the fluids in the chambers of the inner ear and is thought to be the underlying cause of Meniere’s disease. Diuretics are believed to work by reducing the volume (and therefore also the pressure) of these fluids. The specialist, with whom I had consulted in London, had told me that I had a form of endolymphatic hydrops in my (good) right ear. He said it was very probable that I also had hydrops in my left ear, and this had been the ultimate cause of my hearing loss.

The nephrologist asked me questions about my general health and family medical history and then gave me a basic examination; asking me to stand up whilst she tapped my lower back. She decided that since my left kidney had been removed in my infancy, and since I hadn’t been experiencing any issues with my right kidney, that it was fine for me to take the diuretics. She stressed the importance of dealing with the issues with my ear, as this was an immediate concern. I would carry out a kidney function test and also have an abdominal scan to check my right kidney was functioning OK; but neither was of any urgency. I was to try taking the diuretics and see if they provided any relief.

On my next visit to the new specialist, two weeks after meeting with the nephrologist, I was given a form of diuretics called Chlorthalidone 50mg. I was also given a potassium supplement to take, as this type of diuretic would cause to me to also lose potassium that is needed by the body.

The diuretics provided no improvement in my condition or with the pressure in ears. In fact I had some unpleasant side effects.

I started to take the diuretics the day before my boyfriend and I were due to go away for a long weekend. The first day of taking the pills left me feeling dizzy and lightheaded. I assumed this was something that would gradually lessen, the more my body became accustomed to the medication. The second day of taking them, I seemed to have a stronger reaction. On one occasion when my boyfriend and I were in the train station, I started to feel really hot and started sweating. The activity of the station was whirling around me, and I had to stop walking until my dizziness subsided. This was very much like the ‘Warning signs’/Meniere’s-type attack I was trying to discourage.

The extreme lightheadedness continued for the first three days of taking the pills; every day seeming to become more intense. On the morning of the third day, I was having a shower in the room where we were staying, and again I began to feel hot and faint. My legs started to lose strength and I stumbled out of the shower; transferring my body weight to my knees. I knelt down in order to put my head over the toilet. I felt very sick. After a few minutes, I went back to bed to lie down and rest, until I felt less dizzy.

I didn’t want to spoil our time away, as we’d both been looking forward to it, and I felt like we both deserved a nice break. We did enjoy our time, but it was at a much slower pace than we’d anticipated. I spent our weekend away, walking around in a state of dizziness; waves of nausea and tiredness attacking me at random intervals. Whilst sitting in a beautiful restaurant, sharing delicious food, and simultaneously experiencing an intense moment of nausea, I decided that maybe this medication wasn’t right for me.

My body seemed to lose weight quickly. The excess water that was leaving my body seemed too much for me. My arms and legs felt weak. The sensation of needing the toilet was worryingly different. I would have the desire to pee, but when I did, it was almost as though I had another secret bladder next to the one I would be getting the usual warnings from. So I would pee normally, and then more and more would come from what felt like my secret second bladder. It was all very odd. On the third day of taking the pills, when these unwanted effects didn’t cease, I decided I needed to stop taking them.

It was a weekend and I was away from Madrid, so I couldn’t speak with my doctor. I started to research diuretics in more detail. I read about how to stop taking diuretics safely, and found a lot of conflicting evidence. It seemed that once people were given them, they were generally on them long-term. Some information said to eat a low salt diet when stopping. Most information said to give up the pills gradually, rather than to stop abruptly. I was eager to stop taking them. I decided I would take half the following day and a quarter the next day, and then no more.

I did as planned, tapering my dose. The next few days the dizziness and sickness continued, but after about a week they had stopped. I then started to have extremely painful legs. It felt like there was too much pressure in my veins and it was causing a stinging sensation; especially when I tried to relax. I found some relief from rubbing my legs. I read that, although the pills were out of my system by now, that my body would be overcompensating for a while, for the excess salt that was being excreted. I think every time I ate salt, even though very little, my body was reacting to it negatively. Two weeks after stopping I felt back to normal. When I was back in Madrid, I had consulted with my GP and she had agreed that the side effects sounded too severe to have continued taking the medication.

Around five weeks later I had another consultation with the new ENT specialist. He prescribed me another type of diuretics, Torasemide 10mg. I was dismayed. I really didn’t want to take any more medication, as my body hadn’t been tolerating medicines well. However, he was keen for me to try this treatment, along with continuing a low salt diet. I was also taking 40mg of Tavonin, an extract of Ginko Biloba, EGb 761, which is a natural vasodilator (herb than opens and expands the blood vessels), which allows blood to flow more easily. In my case, the aim was to improve the blood flow to my ear. These were the usual treatments for Meniere’s Disease. Perhaps the new pills could help with my tinnitus and fullness of pressure in my ear. Anything was worth a try…