What Is Vertigo and Why Do We Get It?
If you have ever felt like the world is spinning around you, or that you are spinning yourself, you may suffer from vertigo.
We’ll break down the details of this type of dizziness so that you have a better understanding of the condition and can seek out proper treatment to manage your symptoms.
What Is Vertigo?
Vertigo refers to a specific type of dizziness that involves feeling that you or your surroundings are moving, even though there isn’t any actual movement. Vertigo isn’t a condition itself, but rather a symptom of an underlying issue that either involves the labyrinth of the inner ear or the cerebellum of the brain.
If you suffer from vertigo, you may experience various sensations including:
- Falling, or a feeling of being “off balance."
In severe cases of vertigo, you may also experience:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty speaking or swallowing
- Difficulty standing and walking
- Shortness of breath,
- Jerky eye movements
- Increased heart rate
Depending on the underlying cause of your dizziness, your symptoms may come and go, and they may last from seconds to several days. Additionally, they may worsen with certain head movements, when you change positions, or when you sneeze or cough.
Dizziness vs. Vertigo
The distinction between dizziness and vertigo can be a little confusing as many of the symptoms are similar.
Dizziness often refers to a feeling of lightheadedness, whereby you feel as if you’re going to faint. You may also have nausea and vomiting.
However, while you may feel dizzy, you do not experience the sensation that your surroundings are spinning or that you’re spinning, which is characteristic of vertigo.
What Causes Vertigo?
Common causes of vertigo include:
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – this type of vertigo occurs when a collection of calcium (canaliths) builds up in the inner ear and is triggered by head movement. The dizziness experienced by individuals with BPPV tends to be brief, with each episode lasting from about 20 seconds to a minute.
- Meniere’s disease – this condition is likely the result of a buildup of fluid within the inner ear and results in repeated episodes of vertigo, as well as hearing loss and ringing in the ears. Episodes of dizziness tend to last from several minutes to hours.
- Vestibular neuritis – this condition is likely the result of a virus that leads to swelling around the vestibular nerve, which is the nerve that controls balance. This condition results in episodes of sudden and severe vertigo that can last for several days, nausea and vomiting, difficulty with standing and walking, as well as hearing loss in one ear in some cases.
- Head injury – these types of injury can interfere with normal functioning of the vestibular system and lead to episodes of vertigo.
Less common causes of vertigo include:
- Certain medications – some medications can affect normal functioning of the brain or inner ear and lead to episodes of vertigo.
- Vestibular migraines – vertigo can be caused by this type of migraine. Most often the dizziness happens at the same time as a headache, but in some cases, vertigo occurs in the absence of head pain.
- Brain disorders – other conditions such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, etc. can cause vertigo. However, there are usually other symptoms that accompany the vertigo sensation when there is an underlying brain disorder.
What Triggers Vertigo?
If you experience vertigo, keeping a symptom diary to track when your dizziness episodes occur and what you were doing at the time can help to identify potential triggers.
Potential triggers for a vertigo attack include:
- Head movement
- Certain body movements (i.e., bending forwards)
- Stress and anxiety
- Sinus infection
- Caffeine and alcohol
- Certain medications
- Certain foods that have high sugar or salt content
- Prolonged bed rest
Once a trigger has been identified, it’s important to avoid exposing yourself whenever possible to it to minimize your risk of triggering an episode of vertigo.
Treatment for Vertigo
The goal of vertigo treatment is to treat the underlying cause, if it is known, to relieve your symptoms.
If you suffer from episodes of vertigo that are severe or long-lasting, prescription medication may help to relieve your symptoms. Possible medications that may be used include:
- Antihistamines (i.e., meclizine, dimenhydrinate, or diphenhydramine)
- Anti-nausea medications (i.e., promethazine, metoclopramide, or ondansetron)
- Sedative medications (i.e., diazepam, lorazepam, or clonazepam)
Prescription medication should only be used to treat severe cases of vertigo and should be stopped once your symptoms improve as continuing to take medications can interfere with your long-term recovery.
Epley Maneuver and Semont Maneuver
If you suffer from BPPV, the Epley maneuver and Semont maneuver may be used to treat your symptoms. These maneuvers are most often performed by physical therapists and involve moving your head into certain positions to encourage the movement of calcium from within the inner ear.
Often, you’ll start to feel better immediately after treatment, or within a couple of days. If you respond well to this type of treatment, your therapist may give you instructions to perform similar head movements at home in case your symptoms return.
Many patients with vertigo that is caused by injury to the vestibular system benefit from balance rehabilitation, which involves a series of corrective exercises.
Balance rehabilitation helps your brain to adjust its response to changes within the vestibular system. It can also help to train your visual system, as well as your other senses, to learn to adapt to changing situations.
This therapy is most beneficial when it’s initiated as soon as you start to develop symptoms of vertigo.
While this type of dizziness can be quite disruptive to your life, most cases are not dangerous.
If you’re concerned about your episodes of vertigo, speak to your healthcare provider and they can answer any question or concerns that you may have about your condition.