Vertigo is a condition in which you feel off-balance and dizzy, as if you or your surroundings are moving, spinning, or swaying. It can lead to nausea and disability. Vertigo is most common in elderly people, but it can affect both sexes at any age. It may be a temporary or permanent condition.
The organ of balance is the vestibular system in the ear, a tiny grid of fluid-filled tubes and sacs. There are two identical vestibular systems, located in the labyrinth of each inner ear. As you move, the liquid in the tubes also moves about, and its levels are read by nerve cells. The information is sent to the brain, which uses it to calculate which way is down and what should be the horizontal level.
Any problems with balance originate in the vestibular system, so people who suffer from frequent vertigo are said to have a vestibular disorder. Balance problems may be associated with a ringing in the ears or loss of hearing. Vertigo can also be caused by changes in the parts of the brain (cerebellum and brain stem) that are also involved in controlling balance.
Major causes of vertigo include the following:
Some antibiotics can damage the vestibular system in high doses or with prolonged use. Acetylsalicylic acid* (ASA), caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, sedatives, tranquilizers, and several illegal drugs can cause temporary dizziness but do no permanent damage to the balance organs once they are stopped.
Vertigo is the primary symptom of any balance disorder. If you close your eyes during an episode of vertigo, you'll feel as if you're spinning or falling. Severe vertigo can cause vomiting and stop you from walking.
Because the vestibular system is linked to the brain's movement centre and to the eyes, some people with vestibular disorders find their vision is affected, or their muscles are poorly coordinated or don't go where they're supposed to. The muscles may ache, particularly in the neck and back.
Some people complain of other symptoms during attacks of vertigo, like memory problems or difficulty reading. Most people find the struggle against vertigo physically exhausting. Symptoms can last from a few minutes to hours.
The symptoms of bacterial labyrinthitis are unmistakeable. Typically, an ear infection will be followed over days or weeks by a serious deterioration of hearing and extreme vertigo. Viral labyrinthitis may appear weeks or months after a bout of flu or some other viral illness. The vertigo is milder and you may not lose any hearing, though you'll probably have tinnitus, a ringing in the ear.
Ménière's disease brings periodic attacks of vertigo and tinnitus, ranging in frequency from once a year to once a day. Hearing may come and go, but it tends to get worse over the long run. About 10% to 15% of people with Ménière's disease have it in both ears.
Neuronitis due to a blood clot causes sudden loss of balance that may leave you unable to walk for weeks. Your hearing may be unchanged.