What Causes Vertigo and How Can You Tell if You Have it?

For film noir fans, the word vertigo conjures images from the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. The movie stars James Stewart as a private investigator who attempts to follow Kim Novak, despite suffering from trauma-induced acrophobia (a fear of heights) and vertigo (a false sense of rotational movement). To emphasize the condition for which Stewart’s character suffers, Hitchcock used clever camera movements and music that create a visual sense of a spiraling free-fall for the viewer.

For the approximately 40 percent of Americans who will experience vertigo in their lives, Hitchcock’s depiction of the condition is all too real, acting as a reminder of the discomfort of this temporary condition. What causes vertigo, and how can you tell if you have it? Our health experts separate the facts from fiction.

What is Vertigo?

Vertigo is a sensation of feeling off-balance, often more casually referred to as dizzy spells. Those who experience vertigo often report feeling like they are spinning or that the world around them is spinning while they remain still.

What Causes Vertigo?

Perhaps surprisingly, vertigo is often the result of an inner ear problem.  The inner ear sends signals to the brain about head and body movements relative to gravity which help you to keep your balance. When something disrupts the inner ear’s normal processing, it can result in vertigo.

Frequent causes of vertigo may include:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This condition occurs when canaliths (tiny calcium particles) are dislodged from their normal location and collect in the inner ear. It can occur for no reason and is sometimes more common with age.
  • Meniere’s disease. An inner ear disorder that is believed to be caused by a buildup of fluid and changing pressure in the ear that can cause episodes of vertigo, hearing loss, or tinnitus (ringing in the ears).
  • Vestibular neuritis (labyrinthitis). An inner ear problem that is usually related to a viral infection. The infection causes inner ear inflammation around nerves that support the body’s sense of balance.

Vertigo may also result from:

  • Migraines
  • A head or neck injury
  • A stroke, tumor, or other brain problems
  • Medications that can cause ear damage

Vertigo Symptoms

Often triggered by a change in head position, symptoms can last a few minutes, a few hours, or come and go intermittently. Symptoms of vertigo often include sensations of:

  • Spinning
  • Tilting
  • Swaying
  • Unbalance
  • Being pulled in one direction
  • Nausea
  • Hearing loss
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Vomiting
  • Nystagmus (abnormal, jerking eye movements)
  • Sweating
  • Headache

What to Do if You Think That You are Experiencing Vertigo?

If you believe you are experiencing vertigo, talk to your doctor. They can determine the underlying condition causing your vertigo sensations and help you reestablish your equilibrium. Depending on the underlying cause of your vertigo, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as dimenhydrinate and meclizine.

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