Signs, symptoms and treatment for this often-scary condition
Vertigo is a temporary sensation that makes you feel like you’re in a spinning or tilting room. This isn’t necessarily a dangerous condition, but it can feel scary when it’s happening. There are two types of vertigo. Peripheral vertigo happens because of inner ear problems. Central vertigo happens when you have health complications in your central nervous system, which includes your brain and spine.
Causes of vertigo
Different ear problems can cause peripheral vertigo, including:
- Cholesteatoma: A skin growth from frequent infections in the middle ear leads to dizziness.
- Meniere’s disease: A buildup of fluid and pressure in the ear causes you to feel unbalanced.
- Calcium particles: Tiny calcium particles can clump together in the inner ear canal, causing dizziness.
- Vestibular neuronitis: An inner ear infection, also called labyrinthitis, inflames ear nerves, making you feel unbalanced.
Peripheral vertigo often happens when calcium particles move in your inner ear. It’s also called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). BPPV happens more to older people. As you age, the calcium crystals lose the coatings that hold them in place. That means they move around more and cause dizziness.
Central vertigo happens for other reasons. A head or neck injury, migraine headache, stroke or tumor may cause vertigo. Vertigo can also be a side effect of some medications.
Risk factors for vertigo
Besides inner ear and nervous system problems, you can be at risk of having vertigo if:
- You have a head injury
- You’ve overindulged in alcohol
- You take antiseizure medications
Though women over 65 are more at risk for vertigo, it can happen to anyone at any age. For example, Meniere’s disease often affects people between 40 and 60 years of age.
Symptoms of vertigo
If you suddenly feel like the world around you is tilting or spinning, you may have vertigo. Along with a spinning sensation, you may feel nauseous, headachy and lightheaded. If you feel like you want to faint, it’s probably not vertigo.
Diagnosis of vertigo
Along with a full physical exam, your doctor or an ear, nose and throat specialist may order a head CT or MRI scan. These tests take detailed pictures of the inside of your body. They can help the doctor diagnose the cause of your vertigo.
Your doctor may give you a nystagmus test. Nystagmus is a rapid eye movement that happens with vertigo. Your doctor tries to create the eye movement by having you do various exercises. If your doctor sees you having nystagmus as a response to those motions, it may mean you have vertigo.
Other tests may include focusing your eyes, standing still with your eyes closed or marching in place with your eyes shut. All of these tests can help diagnose which type of vertigo you may have.
Treatments for vertigo
Vertigo doesn’t have a cure, but it’s not fatal. An episode of peripheral vertigo usually goes away on its own in a few minutes. Sometimes it lasts for hours or weeks. If your vertigo lasts a long time, there is treatment. Doctors often prescribe anti-nausea drugs to slow down the dizziness.
Canalith repositioning, also called the Epley maneuver, helps reduce vertigo. A healthcare professional positions your head to let your inner ear crystals shift back into place. The spinning and tilting feeling usually stops within a couple of days after the treatment.
Recovery from vertigo
You may have one episode of vertigo and never feel it again. Or, you can have vertigo on and off for years. Ask your doctor about these head-movement exercises and lifestyle changes you can do at home to handle vertigo:
- Using a cane or walking device to prevent falls
- Doing Brandt-Daroff exercises to help break up crystals
- Installing better nighttime lighting to prevent fall-related injuries
- Trying the Epley maneuver to move crystal particles in your inner ear
If you do experience vertigo, avoid driving or climbing a ladder. Make it a habit to get up slowly from seated positions. Sit down as soon as you feel dizzy.
Are you worried that you have vertigo? We’re here to help. Visit Mercy.com to make an appointment with a primary care doctor or specialist. We’ll work together to find the treatment that improves your well-being.