If you ever spun in a circle until you fell down as a child, you have a sense of what vertigo feels like. People who have vertigo experience dizziness every so often and do not understand why. It feels like the environment or their head is spinning out of control. Anyone can develop vertigo, but those most at risk are 65 years of age or older.
Vertigo is tricky in that for some people it’s only temporary. For others, it’s more long-term. Typically, the condition begins with the inner ear or brain problems. Some vertigo originates from mental health problems. This is not a mere moment of feeling faint. And while vertigo has causes that must be determined, it also has its own symptoms.
The patient with vertigo often:
- Feels motion sick
- Gets light-headed
- Has balance problems
- Experiences nausea and vomiting
Besides this, some people with vertigo also report ringing in their ears (Tinnitus) and a sense that their ears are plugged. These last two symptoms appear most often among people who have a Meniere’s Disease diagnosis.
What Causes Vertigo?
A person can experience vertigo for a lot of reasons. For example, some medications have dizziness as a side effect. Individuals who have had head injuries, ear surgery and chronic migraines show a higher instance of vertigo than others. Beyond these, several other underlying conditions can set off vertigo:
Calcium Carbonate Crystals: These crystals touch sensory hairs in the inner ear when you move. If there is a disturbance somehow, this can send incorrect information to your brain from the vestibular nerve. You don’t really know in what position you’re standing or moving. This is BPPV and may have links to dementia. It also occurs more often in women than in men.
Herpes: If the viral infection (shingles) occurs close to the ear that impacts the facial nerve, it can cause vertigo.
Inner Ear Growth: Benign tumors sometimes form on the nerve that goes from a person’s ear to their brain and creates confusion in terms of balance. This is an Acoustic Neuroma.
Inner Ear Inflammation: Called Labyrinthitis, the inner ear becomes irritated often due to a virus. This affects the nerves that communicate messages about motion and sound to the brain. Vestibular neuronitis has similar outcomes.
Membrane Separation: A tear in the membranes between the middle and inner ear causes the inner ear fluid to leak, creating balance problems. This condition is a perilymphatic fistula.
Meniere’s Disease: An imbalance of inner ear fluid (especially fluid buildups) play a role in vertigo episodes for those with Meniere’s. Unlike other forms of vertigo, this appears at earlier ages, often starting around 40.
Otosclerosis: This is a bone problem in the middle ear that results in hearing loss. That loss may affect balance.
Skin Growth: Sometimes people who have repeated ear infections develop a skin growth akin to a scar in the middle ear. This is cholesteatoma. If the skin continues expanding it may cause ear damage that produces hearing loss and vertigo.
Besides these potential vertigo causes, strokes, TIAs, syphilis, and multiple sclerosis may all have dizziness as part of the overall symptomology.
Types of Vertigo
Depending on the reason for vertigo, it manifests in one of two ways.
Peripheral Vertigo ties to problems with the balance organs in the inner ear. When these problems occur, the messages sent to the brain about a person’s vertical position get muddled, causing dizzy spells. Often this problem has a viral infection as the culprit.
Central Vertigo, as the name implies, begins with problems in the central nervous system (the cerebellum and the brain stem). This causes problems with balance and vision along with dizziness.
If your physician feels you may have vertigo, diagnosis begins with your medical history and an account of your symptoms and frequency. Your doctor will ask you about any medications you’re taking, any illnesses and any medical problems in the past that produced similar symptoms.
Next comes a neurological exam. This helps your doctor determine the source of your vertigo (inner ear or central nervous system). This may include purposeful head movement followed by symptom monitoring. If your practitioner suspects a stroke or other similar conditions, they may take a CT scan or MRI just to rule those out.
Some instances of vertigo resolve themselves. Some are simple to ease such as those caused by infection. Here an antibiotic can clear things up usually within two weeks.
For vertigo with underlying conditions, there are other approaches. Over the counter medication like those for motion sickness can be a godsend. Antihistamines may help as well because they impact the inner ear fluid.
Depending on the severity of vertigo, a doctor might recommend surgery. This happens with people suffering from BPPV and Meniere’s. Many of the recommendations for easing Meniere’s symptoms apply to vertigo management. Namely:
- Decrease salt intake to avoid fluid retention.
- Consider medications like lorazepam that help with dizziness (this requires a prescription).
- Avoid smoking, drinking caffeinated beverages and alcohol.
- Try alternative holistic approaches like acupuncture, acupressure, and natural herbal supplements (ginger root and turmeric come to mind).
There have been exercises developed to help people with vertigo. These exercises entail head rotations and holding specific positions for a length of time, often 30 seconds. These exercises seem most useful when a person follows them routinely.
If you have severe on-going bouts of vertigo, using heavy machinery and driving may be off the list of things you can do safely. Wear solid shoes so you feel well grounded. Instruct people at home, work and in social situations on what to do if you get dizzy.
Summing It All Up: Smart Responses to Vertigo Episodes
When you deal with recurrent vertigo, it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve when an attack happens. As soon as dizziness starts, sit down somewhere safe. Move slowly. If possible, turn down the lights.
Have a cane with you so you can adjust your balance and avoid falling. Keep any medications you take for vertigo in a well-known location that’s accessible. Avoid standing or turning your head quickly during or after an episode. This is also a good protocol to help decrease the number of attacks you have. Ultimately, the best approach to management vertigo is using multiple traditional and holistic treatment methods until you find what works best for your condition.