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Seeking Balance Through Vestibular Research

“I literally felt like I was falling off the Earth,” recalls Charlene Joaquim. “I felt like my feet were not touching the ground.” A bubbly, energetic kindergarten teacher, Ms. Joaquim suddenly developed chronic attacks of vertigo in 2003 that were so intense that she needed assistance getting out of bed in the morning.

Vertigo and other balance disorders, as described by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), are disturbances that cause an individual to feel unsteady, giddy, woozy or have a sensation of movement, spinning, or floating. The NIDCD estimates that millions of Americans have balance disorders and that more than 40 percent of them will experience dizziness severe enough to go to a doctor. Ms. Joaquim was one of them.

For Ms. Joaquim, the smell of rubber, the sound of a violin, or even a glimpse of sunlight could trigger an episode of vertigo. “I remember lying down at home and looking up at a skylight one day and just the movement of the clouds caused me to have an attack,” she said. Her symptoms were a result of vestibular neuritis — inflammation of the vestibular nerve. Charlene Joaquim visited two other doctors before a friend referred her to Mass. Eye and Ear neurotologist Dr. Steven Rauch.  Dr. Rauch treated Ms. Joaquim with a combination of medication and weekly rehabilitation therapy.

People such as Ms. Joaquim are the reason Mass. Eye and Ear is establishing a Balance Center  that will offer a multidisciplinary approach to treating balance disorders. With the addition of psychiatry, physical therapy and rehabilitation services, a Balance Center will eventually complement Mass. Eye and Ear’s current treatment and testing capabilities. The Center will offer coordinated, focused, full-service care, thus reducing the number of visits patients make to the hospital. “I can see how someone could give in to this disease,” she says, as her voice cracks and she struggles to hold back tears. “Thanks to treatment at Mass. Eye and Ear, I am living a normal life,” she says.