Two days after last Christmas, I woke up to the world spinning to my right and wanted to throw up. I spent the morning lying very still in bed and in the afternoon, after throwing up and being examined in the doctor’s office, I was informed that I was suffering from labyrinthitis.
The condition is an infection of the inner ear that affects the vestibular system which determines one’s balance. Crystalline protein-calcium carbonate granules — otoliths-- which weigh down a membrane in the inner ear’s saccule and utricle somehow get loose and screw up the sensations being transmitted via the ear and the eye to the brain about the head’s position. Hence the vertigo and the vomiting— like being badly seasick or carsick.
I spent the first week on steroids and anti-nausea pills staying as still as possible, cancelling a traditional New Year’s trip to Honolulu. I tried to explain to others what was causing the problem but the idea of “crystals” floating around in my head made it a bit strange to explain.
The second week I went to physical therapy where, after a series of questions and tests, I was told that the disorder was in the horizontal vestibular canal. I was placed on my back looking up at the ceiling, told to turn my head to the left (which made me very dizzy), told to hold my head to the left until the dizziness passed (it soon did), then to return to looking up then turning on to my right side, holding that position for 30 seconds, then turning on my belly and propping myself up on my elbows with my chin down on my chest.
We did that three times after which I was exhausted and sent home with instructions to sleep in a reclining position and not to bend over. I went home and slept all afternoon. I got up feeling a lot steadier.
Stacey, the physical therapist, said that the rotation routine— which I called her Ju Ju Man routine— was meant to reposition the otoliths — my “crystals”-- which had floated loose back to where they were. In describing the routine to an acquaintance who says she and her sister both suffer from periodic vertigo, I learned that the Ju Ju Man routine can be a lot more elaborate: her sister, she said, was treated by being strapped to a table which rotated her into the requisite positions that realigned her otoliths and was given a neck brace to wear to keep her head in the proper position until she recovered.
My mother, who has suffered from bouts of vertigo nearly all her life, greeted the news of my condition with, “Oh, you have the same thing I’ve had all my life.” I replied that, yes, that may be the case but the steroids and the anti-nausea pills helped and the physical therapy seemed to help, too. At 92, she said she can’t stand the pills and she’s learned to just live with her condition.
My brother, on the other hand, greeted the news with: “What, I now have one more thing in my genes to worry about?”
Which humbles me because if I were living on the savannah and came down with this condition, I’d be saber-tooth tiger dinner after dizzily wandering around. End of that genetic line, period. What’s so intelligent about an inner ear design as complicated as this to determine your balance like the one we have? Maybe you think yours is intelligently designed but I think mine is more the product of a busybody tinkerer relying on hit-or-miss, trial-and-error strategy.
Oh, hell, I’ll live with that.