Historical descriptions of fear at heights date back to Chinese and Roman antiquity. Current definitions distinguish between three different states of responses to height exposure: a physiological height imbalance that results from an impaired visual control of balance, a more or less distressing visual height intolerance, and acrophobia at the severest end of the spectrum. Epidemiological studies revealed a lifetime prevalence of visual height intolerance including acrophobia in 28% of adults (32% in women; 25% in men) and 34% among prepubertal children aged 8-10 years without gender preponderance. Visual height intolerance first occurring in adulthood usually persists throughout life, whereas an early manifestation in childhood usually shows a benign course with spontaneous relief within years. A high comorbidity was found with psychiatric disorders (e.g. anxiety and depressive syndromes) and other vertigo syndromes (e.g. vestibular migraine, Menière's disease), but not with bilateral vestibulopathy. Neurophysiological analyses of stance, gait, and eye movements revealed an anxious control of postural stability, which entails a co-contraction of anti-gravity muscles that causes a general stiffening of the whole body including the oculomotor apparatus. Visual exploration is preferably reduced to fixation of the horizon. Gait alterations are characterized by a cautious slow walking mode with reduced stride length and increased double support phases. Anxiety is the critical factor in visual height intolerance and acrophobia leading to a motor behavior that resembles an atavistic primitive reflex of feigning death. The magnitude of anxiety and neurophysiological parameters of musculoskeletal stiffening increase with increasing height. They saturate, however, at about 20 m of absolute height above ground for postural symptoms and about 40 m for anxiety (70 m in acrophobic participants). With respect to management, a differentiation should be made between behavioral recommendations for prevention and therapy of the condition. Recommendations for coping strategies target behavioral advices on visual exploration, control of posture and locomotion as well as the role of cognition. Treatment of severely afflicted persons with distressing avoidance behavior mainly relies on behavioral therapy.
Keywords: Acrophobia; Balance control; Fear of heights; Muscle co-contraction; Visual height intolerance.