Finding Balance

Dr. Rachel Wellons helps patients live fuller lives by gaining relief from neurological challenges


Rachel Wellons seems happiest in clinic, where she balances work with students, patients and research. A board-certified clinical specialist, Wellons focuses on neurological physical therapy, with a specialty in vestibular rehabilitation.

The clinic is small but packed with equipment including weights and machines, a harness system, treadmills, a force plate technology device and infrared goggles. Here, Wellons treats patients and teaches the roughly 35 students she has each semester.

Passionate about the field of physical therapy and the benefits of rehabilitation, Wellons draws on years of experience and education. After receiving her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from Thomas Jefferson University in 2006, becoming board certified in neurologic physical therapy and later attending the APTA Vestibular Rehabilitation course, Wellons came to LSU Health Sciences Center in 2011. She is an associate professor of physical therapy and online educational coordinator and chair for the Vestibular Special Interest Group of the Academy of Neurologic Physical Therapy.

Wellons first became interested in physical therapy in high school, where she was an athlete, injured her knee and needed physical therapy. Always strong in science, Wellons decided to go to physical therapy school, seeking a career where she could be around athletes. But all that changed one day.

“While I was in physical therapy school, I started learning about the brain,” Wellons said, “and I was hooked. So I switched from wanting to do sports to focusing on neurological therapy.”

She became particularly intrigued with vestibular rehabilitation in her senior year of school, when she did an independent study project on the differential diagnosis of dizziness.

Today, her research and practice focus on clinical translational research and vestibular rehabilitation. Vestibular rehabilitation is physical therapy for the inner ear — for dizziness and balance disorders.

The vestibular system is responsible for sensing movement and helps people balance. It sends signals to the eyes to coordinate eye and head movement and information to the neck and spine to coordinate balance. Today, many people struggle with dizziness and balance issues.

“You can do physical therapy for dizziness — dizziness is not normal, and we have very good treatment for it,” Wellons said.

When Wellons diagnoses patients with vestibular dysfunction, she makes a careful analysis of eye movement to pinpoint the issue. She generally sees vestibular patients once a week and then gives them a comprehensive program to work on at home.

One of her recent patients was struggling with dizziness, and through the use of infrared goggles and specific maneuvers, Wellons diagnosed the problem and identified how to treat it.

Wellons explained, “Naturally occurring crystals in our ears become loose and move into the semi-circular canals where they aren’t supposed to be; there, they interfere with the flow of fluid and make people feel dizzy.”

After identifying the location of the crystals, Wellons took the patient through a series of different positions to migrate the crystals back to where they were supposed to be. After two series of maneuvers, the patient had no more dizziness.

Wellons cares about giving her patients the best treatment possible and training students to become effective physical therapists. She explains how important it is to find a good physical therapist.

“A good physical therapist will act as a coach, set you up on a program and help to motivate and adjust your program to your needs,” Wellons said. “Your physical therapist should listen to your needs, educate you on what to expect, when the results should come and what to look for as signs you’re getting better. A good physical therapist should always have a hypothesis about what might be wrong and should objectively measure progress toward your goal — and communicate that with you.”

“The role of the physical therapist,” Wellons said, “is to help patients move better so they can do the things they need and love to do. I’m the happiest when my patients are out there having fun. Getting patients to do all the activities they want to do and live their lives — that’s the biggest reward for me.”


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