Spinning around and around as a child may have been fun, but vertigo, a feeling of whirling around when you are not moving, is not a good time. Vertigo is a symptom that can be caused by many different conditions, and is different from passing dizziness or lightheadedness. Symptoms commonly occur when whirling around rapidly and then stopping. Often, vertigo is accompanied by nausea and a loss of balance. Vertigo may pass quickly, or can last for hours or days.
What Causes Vertigo?
There are many possible causes of vertigo, including motion sickness, infection in the inner ear, vision problems, head injury, insufficient blood supply to the brain, and brain tumors. Inner ear nerves and structures sense the position of your head and body in space. Vertigo is often caused by problems with these nerves and structures. Less commonly, it is due to problems in the brain.
A condition called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo involves attacks of vertigo triggered by certain head positions; its cause is believed to be deposits of calcium in the inner ear. Another condition, Meniere's disease, is characterized by sudden, intense attacks of vertigo often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, along with ringing in the ears and progressive deafness. Its cause is unknown.
Note: Because of its wide variety of causes, you should always see your physician for persistent episodes of vertigo.
Vertigo can be classified as:
- Vertigo of Peripheral Origin
Vertigo of peripheral origin is caused by problems of the inner ear. The ear is a sensory organ for picking up sound waves, allowing us to hear, it is essential to our sense of balance. The inner ear contains the vestibular system, which is the body’s organ of balance. Vertigo can occur when problems develop within the vestibular system.
Vertigo of peripheral origin is the most common type of vertigo. Causes may include:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
- Meniere's disease
- Perilymphatic fistula—an abnormal canal or connection in the inner ear
- Ototoxic medications—some medications can disrupt the inner ear's ability to balance
- Acoustic neuroma—benign tumor of the inner ear
- Reduced blood flow
- Otosclerosis—a bony growth near the middle ear
- Vertigo of Central Origin
Vertigo of central origin is not as common as vertigo of peripheral origin, but it is more serious. This type of vertigo is affects the brainstem or the cerebellum, the region of the brain that controls balance. Causes may include:
- Brain lesion or tumors
- Migraine headaches
- Nervous system disorders such as Parkinson's disease or multiple sclerosis
- Excessive exposure to alcohol, heavy industrial metals, or poisons
Symptoms of Vertigo
Common vertigo symptoms include:
- Sensation of rotation
- Illusion of movement
- Sensation of feeling pulled in one direction
- Feeling off-balance
Vertigo is different than lightheadedness. With lightheadedness, there is no sensation of movement. People often feel lightheaded before they faint.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. To find the cause of your vertigo, additional tests may be done. Tests may include:
- Blood tests
- Dix-Hallpike maneuver—particular movement of the head to relieve or stimulate symptoms
- Auditory tests
- Vision tests
- Blood pressure test, both lying down and standing up
- Electronystagmogram (ENG) to check for nystagmus, an abnormal, rhythmic, jerking eye movement
- MRI scan
- Rotatory chair test in certain situations
- Brainstem auditory evoked potential studies (BAEPS or BAERs)—to check for nerve conduction in the brain auditory nerve and brain stem
Vertigo is a symptom of another medical condition. Treatment will focus managing the underlying medical condition. Efforts may also be used to decrease the symptoms of vertigo. These may include one or more of the following:
In some cases, you may need to stop taking medications that may be causing your vertigo.
- Lifestyle Changes
Living with vertigo can be challenging, but not impossible. While there is no one way to prevent vertigo from happening, these tips may help:
If you are in a crowded open space, or out in public:
- Use a cane to help with balance and mobility.
- Sit at one end of the sports field or theater to avoid moving your head back and forth.
- Bring a stool or chair so you can sit down when needed.
- Schedule your day around peak times when places are crowded.
- Do not read or work on a computer if you are moving.
- Do not fly if you have sinus or ear problems due to an infection.
- Avoid loud background music and harsh lighting.
- Try to eat smaller meals throughout the day.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.
- Your healthcare provider may assist in providing relief for vertigo. Dr. Jennifer Nelson with LewisGale Physicians Blacksburg ENT can assess your symptoms, diagnose, and develop a plan for treatment. To schedule an appointment, call the office at (540) 443-7400 or click the button to schedule an appointment online.