Imagine opening your eyes and the room appearing to be whirling around you like a tornado. Turning your head ever so slightly sends your world spinning, and even when lying still, there’s a moving sensation. Standing up and trying to walk sends you lurching to and fro as you attempt to maintain your balance. You feel nauseous, like you have motion sickness or the flu. Your mind races as you wonder, “What in the world is wrong with me?”
WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF VERTIGO
These alarming symptoms, which can range from mild to debilitating, may be a sign of vertigo. Vertigo is typically associated with inner ear (vestibular system) dysfunction. When your inner ear malfunctions, your sense of movement, motion, and balance is thrown off kilter.
Experts estimate 40 percent of Americans, at some time in their lives, will experience an episode of dizziness and loss of balance significant enough to send them to a doctor. Vertigo can affect all ages, although it’s rare in young children. The consequences become more substantial with age because loss of balance can lead to falls and fractures.
HOW THE INNER EAR WORKS
To understand what creates the symptoms of vertigo, it helps to know the role your inner ear plays in keeping you balanced in day-to-day life. Inside your ear is a tiny organ called the vestibular labyrinth. It includes three loop-shaped structures (semicircular canals) that contain fluid and fine, hair-like sensors that monitor the rotation of your head. Other inner ear structures (otolith organs) monitor your head movements—up and down, back and forth, right and left, and your head’s position related to gravity. These otolith organs contain small crystals of calcium carbonate called otoconia that make you sensitive to gravity.
Vertigo symptoms often resolve spontaneously over time, sometimes in a matter of days.
CAUSES, DIAGNOSIS AND TREATMENT
Inner ear infection and inflammation, medications, a head injury, or migraines can lead to vertigo. Although uncommon, vertigo can be a possible sign of other disorders, such as stroke, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, or cardiovascular disease.
The crystals within the inner ear can become displaced for a variety of reasons, which irritates the hair cells within the semicircular canals. This can lead to benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). Often, there’s no known cause for BPPV.
Another cause of vertigo is Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that results in spontaneous episodes of vertigo along with fluctuating hearing loss, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), and sometimes a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ear. The cause of Meniere’s isn’t well understood. People in their 40s and 50s are more likely than those in other age groups to develop Meniere’s disease, but it can occur in anyone, even children. Vertigo symptoms often resolve spontaneously over time, sometimes in a matter of days.
When they don’t, treatment is determined by diagnosing the underlying problems. Tests and exams, including balance tests and MRI, are used to diagnose vertigo and Meniere’s disease. Most cases of vertigo are treatable with physical therapy, medication, and in some cases surgery. Although there is no known cure for Meniere’s, lifestyle changes such as limiting caffeine and alcohol, and some treatments, including prescription medication, can help relieve symptoms.
When To See A Doctor
See your physician if you experience unexplained dizziness. Your family or internal medicine doctor may be able to diagnose and treat the cause of your vertigo, or you may be referred to a specialist such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat or ENT specialist) or a neurologist.
Although it’s uncommon for dizziness to signal a serious illness, seek medical help immediately if you experience dizziness or vertigo along with any of the following:
- A new, different, or severe headache
- A fever
- Double vision or loss of vision
- Hearing loss
- Trouble speaking
- Leg or arm weakness
- Loss of consciousness
- Falling or difficulty walking
By Annette Brooks
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