Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center - Health Library

Vertigo

(Dizziness)

Definition

Vertigo is a feeling of spinning or whirling when you are still. It is a symptom that can be caused by many different issues.

Vertigo is different from passing dizziness or lightheadedness.

Causes  ^

The inner ear and nerves sense the position of your head and body in space. Vertigo is often caused by problems with these nerves and structures. It may also be due to problems in the brain but this is rare.

There are two main types of vertigo including:

Vertigo of Peripheral Origin

Problems of the inner ear are cause of this kind of vertigo. It is the most common type of vertigo. Causes may include:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
  • Meniere disease
  • Perilymphatic fistula—an abnormal canal or connection in the inner ear
  • Ototoxic medications—some medications can disrupt the inner ear's ability to balance
  • Infection
  • Acoustic schwannoma (also known acoustic neuroma—a benign tumor of the nerve involved in hearing and balance
  • Reduced blood flow
  • Injury
  • Otosclerosis—a bony growth near the middle ear

Vertigo of Central Origin

This type is less common but more serious. Changes in the brainstem or the cerebellum cause this type of vertigo. These parts of the brain control balance. Changes can be caused by:

Risk Factors  ^

The conditions above will increase your risk of vertigo.

Symptoms  ^

Common vertigo symptoms include:

  • Sensation of rotation
  • Illusion of movement
  • Sensation of feeling pulled in one direction
  • Feeling of being off-balance

Vertigo is different than lightheadedness. With lightheadedness, there is no feeling of movement.

Diagnosis  ^

You will be asked about your symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. Tests may be done to look for a cause. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Head maneuvers—the doctor will move your head is specific ways. Your response may help to relieve symptoms.
  • Hearing and vision tests
  • Blood pressure test, both lying down and standing up
  • Electronystagmogram (ENG)—to check for nystagmus, an abnormal, rhythmic, jerking eye movement
  • MRI scan
  • Rotatory chair test
  • Brainstem auditory evoked potential studies (BAEPS or BAERs)—to check for nerve conduction in the brain auditory nerve and brain stem

Treatment  ^

Treatment will focus on the cause of the vertigo. Treating the cause may stop the vertigo. Medicine may help to lessen or stop the vertigo. Options include one or more of the following:

  • Antihistamines
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Anticholinergics
  • Antiemetics

In some cases, you may need to stop taking medications that may be causing your vertigo.

Lifestyle Changes

Living with vertigo can be hard but not impossible. Try these tips:

If you are out in public:

  • Use a cane to help with balance.
  • Sit at one end of the sports field or theater. Avoid moving your head back and forth.
  • Bring a stool or chair so you can sit down when you need to.
  • Try to avoid peak times when places are crowded.

Other tips:

  • Don't read or work on a computer if you are moving.
  • Don't fly if you have sinus or ear problems due to an infection.
  • Avoid loud background music and harsh lighting.
  • Try to eat smaller meals throughout the day.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.

Prevention  ^

There are no current steps to prevent vertigo.

RESOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
http://www.entnet.org

Vestibular Disorders Association
http://www.vestibular.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

BC Balance and Dizziness Disorders Society
http://www.balanceanddizziness.org

Canadian Academy of Audiology
http://www.canadianaudiology.ca

REFERENCES:

Dizziness and vertigo. The Merck Manual Professional Edition. Available at: http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/ear_nose_and_throat_disorders/approach_to_the_patient_with_ear_problems/dizziness_and_vertigo.html. Updated October 2016. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Dizziness—differential diagnosis. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T360974/Dizziness-differential-diagnosis. Updated March 19, 2018. Accessed October 1, 2018.

Karatas M. Central vertigo and dizziness: Epidemiology, differential diagnosis, and common causes. Neurologist. 2008;14(6):355-364.

Strategies for everyday living. Vestibular Disorders Association website. Available at: http://vestibular.org/living-vestibular-disorder/everyday-challenges. Accessed February 15, 2018.

Swartz R, Longwell P. Treatment of vertigo. Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(6):1115-1122.

7/2/2010 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance.http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T113695/Benign-paroxysmal-positional-vertigo-BPPV: Oh HJ, Kim JS, et al. Predicting a successful treatment in posterior canal benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Neurology. 2007;68:1219-1222.

9/10/2014 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance.http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing, Family Practitioner Program. Evaluation of vertigo in the adult patient. Austin (Tx): University of Texas at Austin, School of Nursing; 2014 May. 19 p. Available at: http://www.guideline.gov/content.aspx?id=48220#Section427. Accessed September 10, 2014.

Last reviewed October 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD  Last Updated: 10/1/2018