Vertigo is the term used to describe a false sensation of movement or spinning. It is often referred to as ‘dizziness’, which is a less specific term that can refer to anything from feeling light-headed or unsteady to a spinning sensation.
Any condition that causes problems with the balance mechanism in your inner ear (the vestibular labyrinth) can cause vertigo. The more common conditions that cause vertigo include:
Migraine headaches can also cause vertigo. Less commonly, stroke, mini-stroke (TIA — transient ischaemic attack) or a tumour of the nerve connecting the inner ear to the brain can be the cause of vertigo.
People with vertigo often feel as if they are spinning or moving, or as if the world is spinning around them. Vertigo can last from a couple of minutes to hours, and is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sweating. Certain positions or movements (e.g. turning over in bed or moving your head back to look up) can bring on vertigo or make it worse.
Vertigo can be a very overwhelming and intensely unpleasant experience – like the feeling you get after being spun around very fast on fairground ride. In rare cases, the nausea and vomiting can be severe enough to cause dehydration. Vertigo can also put you at risk of falling over.
Your doctor may determine the cause of your vertigo by asking specific questions about your symptoms and examining you. The examination may include checking your hearing and balance, as well as testing whether certain head positions cause vertigo. Your doctor will also look for any abnormal rhythmic eye movements (known as nystagmus), which are usually seen in people with vertigo.
You may also need to have some tests, which may include formal hearing and balance tests and possibly a scan of your brain.
The treatment of vertigo depends on what's causing it. There are medicines that can be used to control both the dizzy sensations and nausea and vomiting if they occur.
If you suffer from benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), your doctor may treat you by performing a simple procedure that involves moving your head into a variety of different positions. BPPV is caused by tiny particles in the fluid-filled canals of your inner ear becoming trapped in the wrong place. The so-called canalith repositioning procedure works by dislodging these particles so that they move into a part of the ear where they don't cause any problems. Positioning exercises can also be performed at home to help with ongoing symptoms.
Last Reviewed: 10 April 2013