10 Things to Know About Vertigo

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Ever tilted your head back--and suddenly found the world spinning around you?

You likely had an episode of vertigo, which is a common but frightening experience, especially the first time it strikes. One minute you are fine, and the next you feel scarily out of control, caught in a whirling that won't stop.

What is vertigo, what can cause it, and what can you do about it? Here are 10 things you need to know.

1. Vertigo is not the same thing as dizziness.

Vertigo is an illusion of motion: You feel like the room is spinning around you or that you are whirling. You also may experience nausea and vomiting.

Dizziness is marked by lightheadedness or loss of balance.

2. Vertigo is common, especially as you get older.

You can get vertigo at any age, but usually not before age 20. As you get older, you are more likely to experience the condition. Among people older than 65, about 30% experience vertigo at some point.

3. Vertigo is usually caused by medical conditions that disrupt our inner ear.

Our sense of balance is directed by our vestibular system, which is located in our inner ears. Sometimes, medical conditions occur that disrupt this system. The result: vertigo.

Medical conditions that cause vertigo include:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV): the most common cause of vertigo, typically associated with a sudden change in the position of your head

  • Labyrnthitis: an inflammation of the inner ear

  • Meniere's disease: a disorder in which fluid builds up in the inner ear

  • Vestibular neuritis: an infection of the nerves connecting the inner ear to the brain

  • Vestibular migraines

  • Colds

  • Stroke

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Head injury

4. Riding your bike on a rough trail or doing high-intensity aerobics can bring on vertigo.

Other triggers include having your head in one position for a long time, like at the dentist's office or hair salon, or while on bed rest.

Some people even get brief episodes of vertigo from playing 3D video games.

5. Vertigo can be either acute or chronic.

Some people experience vertigo once and never again. Other people have chronic, recurring episodes of vertigo.

Often vertigo goes away on its own. If it doesn't, it can be treated either by your general practitioner or by specialists, such as neurologists or ENT (ear, nose and throat) doctors.

6. Exercises can help treat some types of vertigo.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is caused by tiny calcium crystals breaking free in your inner ear chamber. Doctors can use a series of exercises to move these particles so that they no longer cause problems. About 70 to 80% of BPPV sufferers are cured in a single visit.

Other kinds of exercises can help other types of vertigo. Vestibular rehabilitation exercises help people whose inner ears have been damaged by retraining the brain’s balance system. Common exercises include moving your eyes from side to side and rotating your head. Tai chi also is helpful for people with vestibular disorders.

7. Some types of vertigo can be treated surgically.

Surgery isn't typically done unless more conservative measures have failed to work. However, it can be effective for some conditions, such as Meniere's disease.

BPPV also can be addressed surgically for patients who don't respond to particle positioning exercises. The procedure carries the risk of hearing loss.

8. Medications are generally used for acute, not chronic, cases of vertigo.

Medications can help treat and prevent vertigo, depending on what is causing your symptoms. For example, if your vertigo is caused by vestibular migraine, you may receive medications to prevent the migraine from occurring.

Other kinds of vestibular suppressant drugs can help during sudden, temporary attacks of vertigo, but generally are not used for chronic conditions.

9. Your diet can make a difference.

If you have chronic vertigo, particularly due to vestibular migraine or Meniere's disease, avoiding caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, salt and sugar can help, as well as eating and drinking regularly throughout the day to maintain a good fluid balance. People who have vestibular migraine also should avoid common migraine triggers (such as foods containing the amino acid tyramine).

10. If vertigo is accompanied by other symptoms, seek ER help.

If your vertigo recurs for more than a week, see your doctor. But if you also have other symptoms, like a severe new headache, fever, vision problems, trouble speaking, hearing loss, leg or arm weakness, or loss of consciousness, seek emergency help.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Dec 24
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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