Vertigo and dizziness

Symptoms, causes and treatments

What is vertigo and why does it cause dizziness?

Vertigo is a sensation that makes you feel as though your body, or the world around you, is spinning or moving despite being stationary. It causes you to feel dizzy as your brain believes that your body is off balance even though you may not be moving.

Types of vertigo

It may be surprising to learn that there are many different types of vertigo. Although their symptoms may be largely similar, there are some key differences in the root causes of the dizzy spells experienced. Find out more about some of the most common types of vertigo and their symptoms below:

Peripheral vertigo

  1. What is peripheral vertigo?
    Peripheral vertigo is a form of vertigo that typically stems from an issue within the inner ear. It is the most common type of vertigo and can be caused by conditions such as Ménière's disease and labyrinthitis.

  2. What are the symptoms of peripheral vertigo?
    Common symptoms of peripheral vertigo include; a sensation that the world around you is spinning or moving; dizziness; hearing loss; ringing in the ears; loss of balance; trouble focusing your eyes; nausea or vomiting; sweating.

Central vertigo

  1. What is central vertigo?
    Central vertigo is a type of vertigo that occurs when there is an issue with the spinal cord, central nervous system or brain. It may be caused by strokes, migraines, concussions, brain injuries, brain tumours, multiple sclerosis and other conditions that affect the brain, central nervous system or spinal cord.

  2. What are the symptoms of central vertigo?
    Common symptoms of central vertigo include: a sensation that the world around you is spinning or moving; dizziness; uncontrollable eye movements; double vision; headaches; weakness; slurred speech; difficulty swallowing.

Cervical vertigo

  1. What is cervical vertigo?
    Cervical vertigo is a form of vertigo that is triggered by certain head or neck movements. This type of vertigo may be caused by trauma to the cervical spine, an injury that affects the alignment of the head and neck, poor posture or other neck disorders. Cervical vertigo treatments may include medications, such as muscle relaxants, analgesics and anti-dizziness medications, and physical therapy.

  2. What are the symptoms of cervical vertigo?
    Common symptoms of cervical vertigo include: dizziness following sudden neck movements; headaches; nausea and vomiting; a loss of balance; neck pain; ear pain; weakness.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo

  1. What is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)?
    Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is a type of peripheral vertigo that occurs when small calcium carbonate crystals become loose in the ear canal. Interrupting the flow of the fluid located within the inner ear, the crystals make it difficult for the brain to interpret where the head is moving and the speed at which it is doing so, leading to feelings of dizziness and disorientation.

  2. What are the symptoms of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo?
    Common symptoms of BPPV include: short periods of intense dizziness; nausea and vomiting; light-headedness; loss of balance; uncontrollable eye movements.

The symptoms of vertigo

The symptoms of vertigo in adults may vary from case to case depending on the type of vertigo experienced, but some of the most common symptoms include: a sensation that the world around you is spinning or moving even though you are perfectly still; dizziness; feeling unsteady or unbalanced on your feet; lightheadedness; feeling generally faint; headaches; nausea; vomiting; a ringing in the ears; hearing loss; abnormal eye movements; sweating.

Some people may find that certain activities or movements can trigger a vertigo attack. Identifying any potential triggers, such as bending over or looking up, can be useful as you learn how to deal with the vertigo symptoms experienced.

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The main causes of vertigo

The causes of vertigo are typically defined as being central (caused by an issue with the spinal cord or brain) or peripheral (caused by an issue with the inner ear):

  • Common causes of peripheral vertigo include: benign paroxysmal positional vertigo; Ménière's disease; vestibular neuronitis; labyrinthitis; some medications.
  • Central vertigo may be caused by: a concussion or head injury; a stroke or transient ischemic attack; migraines; multiple sclerosis; brain tumours.

Can stress cause vertigo?

When we feel stressed or anxious, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, histamine and other hormones. These hormones can make it harder for signals to travel between the vestibular system and the brain, increasing the risk of experiencing vertigo symptoms.

Can atmospheric pressure cause vertigo?

A drop in atmospheric pressure may lead to a higher prevalence of vertigo symptoms among those living with conditions such as Ménière's disease. Not everyone will be affected in the same way, if at all.

Can dehydration cause vertigo?

Yes, dehydration can cause vertigo. When you become dehydrated, your blood pressure falls, potentially leading to feelings of dizziness.

How is vertigo diagnosed?

As diagnosing vertigo may not be as straightforward as some other common ear conditions, your health professional may recommend a suite of tests to help determine the cause of your symptoms.

In addition to a thorough examination of your medical history, some tests that may be recommended to assist in a vertigo diagnosis include:

  • A physical examination of the ears and eyes
  • A blood pressure check
  • Hearing and balance tests
  • Medical imaging, including CT scans and MRIs

When attending an appointment to investigate your vertigo diagnosis, it’s a good idea to have some notes on hand detailing when the symptoms started occurring, how often they occur, how long the symptoms last and any foods or actions that you believe may trigger an attack.

How to prevent vertigo

Vertigo may develop as a result of many different health conditions. This can make vertigo prevention difficult, especially since the root causes can be so diverse.

To help reduce the impacts of dizziness in your life, look to drink plenty of water, reduce unnecessary stress and ensure you regularly get enough sleep. Avoiding some substances, such as alcohol, caffeine and excess salt may also reduce the severity of symptoms. If you’ve noticed that certain foods, movements or positions lead to the onset of a vertigo attack, look to avoid them.

Treatment for vertigo

Vertigo treatments vary depending on the root cause of the condition. Some potential treatments include:

  • Canalith repositioning maneuvers to help move calcium carbonate deposits from the ear canal to the inner ear.
  • Physio treatments for vertigo, including vestibular rehabilitation and balancing exercises.
  • Medications, including anti-nausea medications, motion sickness medications, migraine medications and steroids.
  • Antibiotics, if an infection is found to be the cause of the symptoms.
  • Cognitive behaviour therapy and counselling.
  • Avoiding certain foods or movements that trigger symptoms.
  • Surgery, although it is only required in few cases.

The type of vertigo you experience and the symptoms that accompany it will help to inform your health care professional of the best care plan for your individual needs.

Some people who experience the symptoms of vertigo may also find that the condition improves over time without the need for medical intervention, while others experience repeated episodes that do require some form of vertigo treatment.

When attending an appointment to investigate your vertigo diagnosis, it’s a good idea to have some notes on hand detailing when the symptoms started occurring, how often they occur, how long the symptoms last and any foods or actions that you believe may trigger an attack.

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