Mum-of-two on battling serious migranes: 'I felt dizzy for five years... It was no life at all'
Mother-of-two Sinéad Murphy tells Áilín Quinlan how she battled migraine vestibulopathy, a common cause of vertigo
It all began on a September afternoon school run.
Mother-of-two Sinéad Murphy was collecting her son Ben (11), who has cerebral palsy, from class, shortly after the start of the 2010 autumn school term.
"As I left the car," she recalls, "I thought I felt dizzy."
By the time she got to the school door, Sinéad felt so unwell that she told Ben's special needs assistant (SNA). The young mum was so disoriented in fact that the concerned SNA drove her back to her house in the rural Cork village of Dripsey.
"I was nauseated and in a cold sweat; the room was spinning," Sinéad recalls.
Her father-in-law brought Sinéad, who also has a six-year-old daughter, to the doctor.
Tests were carried out and initially the diagnosis was an inner-ear problem, which, the doctor, felt, was affecting her balance.
"He gave me an injection and some medication for vertigo."
However, Sinéad recalls, it was some three weeks before the dizzy spells stopped, and in all that time "the only relief I got was sleep".
For the next few years Sinéad endured recurring bouts of dizziness which could last for up to two days at a time. "I found that rest and restricting my movements kept it under control."
In 2013 she started a part-time job as a school secretary, but the bouts of dizziness continued.
"I put up with it and managed the symptoms by resting and restricting my movements," she says.
However, by now the young mum was spending large amounts of her time in bed resting - and the dizziness and nausea returned with the most simple movements.
"It was no life at all. If I had to make the school lunches, for example, the mere movement from the table to the fridge and back again would make me sick and dizzy and send my head into such a spin that I'd have to lie down."
Then in August last year she suddenly became very ill.
"I had had a bad headache for three days. I was in the middle of getting the dinner when everything started to spin. I broke out in a cold sweat, felt extremely nauseated and had to get into bed."
This time, however, bed rest didn't help. In September, the GP sent her into hospital for tests.
Sinéad's problem was diagnosed as migraine with vestibular symptoms (the vestibular system controls our sense of balance and is located in the inner ear and the brain).
Sinéad had migraine vestibulopathy, a very common cause of vertigo.
Some weeks later, the 39-year-old had a consultation with Sheila Barrett, a chartered physiotherapist of some 30 years' experience, who had worked in hospitals in Ireland and abroad including America and Africa.
After reading an article about the condition, Barrett had decided to undergo specialist training at Emory University, Atlanta, USA, which is the centre of excellence for vestibular rehabilitation therapy, and now specialises in it.
"With this condition you'll end up with symptoms like dizziness, vertigo and disequilibrium," Barrett explains.
"The causes can be many. It can be as a result of a head injury through a fall or getting a blow to the head, for example in sports or through a road traffic accident."
Older people can be particularly prone to a condition called benign paroxymal positional vertigo (BPPV), which is where debris in the inner ear becomes dislodged and moves to another part of the inner ear, causing problems such as episodic vertigo.
Vestibular dysfunction can also be caused by a viral infection of the inner ear and can also have a genetic component, in that some people may be pre-disposed to it, says Barrett.
"Overall it affects balance and products disabling symptoms such as vertigo, dizziness and difficulty concentrating.
In the acute stage you may not even be able to read. Nausea is a symptom.
"This is a life-altering condition. It inhibits a person's ability to perform basic day-to-day tasks such as getting dressed, caring for children, going to work, getting out of bed, moving or even standing."
While international statistics show that the condition affects 35pc of US adults over the age of 40, it has been shown to affect all age groups - and the risk increases with age.
People with vestibular dysfunction have a 12-fold increased risk of falling at all ages, warns Barrett, adding that this is more significant with older patients where falls have more serious implications.
Despite the fact that it's a common ailment however, she says, there's a significant lack of public awareness about it.
If a person experiences vertigo, she explains, they may not even be aware that they need to have their vestibular system assessed - so the condition can go unrecognised, undiagnosed and is not treated or managed.
Niall Tubridy, professor of neurology at St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin says the lack of awareness about the condition is a major issue.
"There is a lack of knowledge about it. Yet we see it very commonly," he says.
"It's a very frightening thing to happen and your life turns upside down. People may think they are having a stroke or MS.
"I will send patients directly to the physiotherapist and they often don't even have to receive hospital treatment," he adds. "People are coming to hospital because they think they're having a stroke - the symptoms can be similar and it is very frightening."
The answer, says Tubridy, is greater awareness, not just of the condition itself, but of the fact that it is treatable and that it passes.
"For most of us, it is like having a little bit of dust in the inner ear - it throws off your sense of balance. It's very frightening, but it is treatable, usually through a clinical assessment by a doctor or physio, followed by treatment."
Generally, says Barrett, people are unaware of this condition until they get it.
Migraine she warns, is the most common cause of vertigo in children - her youngest patient was just two years old - while BPPV is the most common cause of the condition in adults.
In Sinéad's case, after undergoing a series of special tests carried out by Barrett she embarked on a programme of treatment and lifestyle changes which involved the use of acupuncture, special balance exercises and a number of lifestyle changes.
The young Dripsey woman stopped drinking coffee, tea and alcohol, and gave up cheese, chocolate and other foods believed to be migraine-triggering.
The effects were significant.
"Within a week of seeing Sheila I experienced a dramatic improvement," says Sinéad.
"I'm no longer taking medication. I'm 95pc better and my quality of life has improved dramatically," she says.
An accurate diagnosis is crucial, emphasises Barrett, who uses sophisticated infrared goggles to examine eye responses.
"People think they 'have vertigo'," Barrett explains.
"In actuality, the vertigo is a symptom, not a diagnosis."
* For more information visit vestibular.org
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