April 17, 2014
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Brain Health

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Dizziness and vertigo

What is dizziness and vertigo?

Dizziness is a term used to describe various sensations such as faintness, lightheadedness, weakness, or unsteadiness. Vertigo refers to a feeling of movement or spinning.

Dizziness and vertigo do not necessarily mean that something is medically wrong, but they can be a warning sign of a medical problem. Many people who experience dizziness or vertigo may also feel nauseous or may vomit. Dizziness and vertigo can be short-lived or chronic (lasting more than 1 month).

What causes dizziness and vertigo?

The most common causes of dizziness are:

  • anxiety or panic attacks
  • arrhythmia (an abnormal heart rhythm)
  • dehydration
  • hormone changes
  • medications
  • stroke
  • thyroid problems
  • vision problems

The most common causes of vertigo include :

  • benign paroxysmal positional vertigo
  • Ménière's disease
  • migraine
  • problems with the vestibular balance system in the inner ear or brain

Sometimes, the cause of dizziness or vertigo can't be found.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is a common cause of recurrent vertigo. It can occur following acute labyrinthitis or a head injury and is caused by dislodged crystals floating in the inner ear. The vertigo episodes are usually very short (a minute or less) and are brought on by body movement such as lying flat, rolling over in bed, looking upwards with the head back, or doing a shoulder check when driving. Fortunately, BPPV can be treated with repositioning treatment that involves tilting the head and body in a specific way.

Ménière's disease also causes vertigo and usually does not develop until middle age. Unlike most other inner ear disorders, it affects not only the balance organ of the inner ear (labyrinth) but also the other part (the cochlea) responsible for hearing. Thus Ménière's can involve hearing impairment that starts on one side. Each attack of vertigo lasts hours. Treatment can involve medications (e.g., diuretics, gentamicin) and reduced salt intake. Very rarely, surgical procedures are required.

The treatment of other causes of vertigo and dizziness depends on the underlying cause. Treatment may include medications (e.g., prednisone, dimenhydrinate, diazepam, scopolamine) or specific exercises to help reduce your sensitivity to dizziness.

If you have ongoing dizziness or vertigo, contact your doctor. Your doctor will perform a physical examination that will focus on your eyes, ears, balance, and nerve function. Your doctor may also order other tests (e.g., hearing tests, CT scan or MRI scan) to determine what is causing your symptoms.

When you experience dizziness or vertigo, try to avoid sudden changes in position, especially of your head, and avoid driving or other hazardous activities. Try to reduce things that might aggravate your symptoms such as stress, caffeine, or smoking.

Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team


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