What is Vertigo?

Vertigo is a symptom in which it feels like the room is spinning or your head is spinning. In the medical sense, the word “vertigo” has nothing to do with heights. Often people describe the uneasy feeling we get up a height as vertigo, but in medicine it only refers to the symptom of feeling like the room is spinning or your head is spinning.

Do I have Vertigo?

Vertigo is a symptom (like pain) rather than a diagnosis. If you sometimes get the feeling that the room is spinning when there is no reason to feel that way, you have the symptom of vertigo. The reason you have the vertigo has not yet been determined. You will need to be reviewed by a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist with specialized training in Vestibular Rehabilitation to diagnose the cause of the vertigo.

What is the difference between Vertigo and Dizziness?

People often confuse these symptoms and they can be difficult to tell apart. Dizziness is when you feel like you are falling to one side or feel ‘woozy’. Vertigo is when it feels like the room is spinning or your head is spinning.

Lightheadedness is when your energy feels low, like you might faint. The feeling of poor balance is known as imbalance.

Why does it feel like My Head is Spinning?

People usually describe vertigo as the feeling that the room is spinning or that “my head is spinning”. The reason it feels that way is because your eyes are ‘twitching’ or moving very quickly without you asking them to. In medicine the call this eye twitching Nystagmus. Any condition that causes this eye twitching, or nystagmus, can cause the feeling that the room is spinning. As mentioned above, we call that symptom Vertigo.

Here is a video of someone experiencing nystagmus or eye twitching. We can see their eyes moving rapidly, they will feel like the room is spinning around (vertigo).

What Causes Vertigo?

Vertigo can be a symptom of a variety of diseases. The most common is a condition known as BPPV or Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. There are some other conditions that can cause vertigo, such as:

  • Vestibular Hypofunction
  • Labyrinthitis
  • Vestibular Neuritis
  • Ménière’s Disease
  • Migraine Associated Vertigo
  • Brain Injury, Concussion or ‘Central Vertigo’

What is BPPV or Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo?

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo is a condition in which the vertigo is caused by little salty crystals getting stuck in the canals of the inner ear organ (the labyrinth). It’s really hard to describe in writing but these videos do a wonderful job. First, we have to understand how the human balance system works:

Essentially, that little labyrinth organ is like our bodies ‘spirit level’. We use it to sense what position our head is in:

Unfortunately, little salty crystals or Otoconia sometimes get stuck in the little loops or canaliths of the labyrinth. This video does an excellent job of illustrating what is going on:

Those little salty crystals (Otoconia) cause the labyrinth to send messages to the brain saying that we’re spinning around. That makes the eyes twitch (nystagmus).

What is the Treatment for Vertigo?

The most appropriate treatment for vertigo depends on the cause of the vertigo. As discussed above, vertigo is a symptom, not a disease. It’s a bit like asking “what is the best treatment for pain?”. The obvious answer is “it depends what is causing the pain”. Since BPPV or Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo is the most common cause of vertigo, it makes sense to start there. 

Treatment for BPPV or Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo

The best treatment for BPPV is something called Canalith Repositioning. That sounds really complicated but it’s actually quite a simple concept. 

If the little salty crystal is stuck in one of the loops (canaliths) of the labyrinth then we need to get it out of there! Imagine you had a marble in a curved drain pipe with a plug at one end. You would tip the drain pipe upside down and turn it to get the marble to roll out right? It’s the same with the little salty crystals (otoconia) in the canalith of the labyrinth. We use a series of positions to get the crystals to ‘roll out’ of the other end. 

Which positions to use depends on which canalith the crystals are stuck in. You can’t do that on your own unfortunately, you’ll need the help of a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist with specific training in vertigo treatment. Fortunately, we have a bunch of those at our clinics so you can just give us a call 😉

There are some other conditions that cause vertigo, we’ll talk through a few of the more common ones below.

Vestibular Hypofunction

This diagnosis basically means the balance system in your inner ear (labyrinth) is not working properly for some reason. This can be the result of previous or current infections (see below), reactions to medications, blood clots, tumors or just the effects of aging. 

Labyrinthitis

Labyrinthitis is an infection of the little balance organ of the inner ear – also known as the labyrinth. It is usually caused by a viral infection and clears up on its own but sometimes it is caused by a bacterial infection and antibiotics can be used. Sometimes hearing loss can occur and if so you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Vestibular Neuritis

Vestibular Neuritis is a viral infection that causes inflammation of your vestibular nerve (the nerve connecting your labyrinth organ to the brain). 

Ménière’s Disease

Meniere’s disease is a disorder of the labyrinth organ. It causes vertigo, hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). It also often causes a feeling of fullness in the ear.

Migraine Associated Vertigo

Migraine Associated Vertigo is a type of migraine that produces vertigo (spinning) as one of its symptoms.

Brain Injury, Concussion or ‘Central Vertigo’

The term ‘Central Vertigo’ is used when the vertigo symptoms are caused by problems within your brain or spinal cord – also known as the Central Nervous System. The cause can be a variety of things including migraine, brain tumor, multiple sclerosis, concussion, stroke, etc.

What now?

If anything mentioned above rings a bell you will probably benefit from an assessment by a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist trained in Vestibular Rehabilitation. We can liaise with your family Physician and help organize referral to a specialist if required.

You do not need a referral from your Family Doctor to be assessed by a Physiotherapist or Athletic Therapist. If you would like to book an assessment please go ahead and click the link below. If you would like more information, please give us a call or fill in the contact form below.

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