Ever feel like the room is spinning? Here, DR MÉLISSANDRE NOËL of International Medical Clinic (IMC) explains the symptoms and causes of vertigo, and how it differs from dizziness.
What is vertigo and how is it different than dizziness?
Symptoms of both vertigo and dizziness are more common as we get older, and both impact balance and movement. In fact, it’s estimated that about 40 percent of people over 40 years old will experience vertigo or dizziness in the course of their lives. Additionally, women tend to be more affected than men.
However, it’s important to differentiate between the two conditions – both of which can be scary. While vertigo is the sensation that you or the room around you is spinning, dizziness is the sensation of feeling light-headed, weak or unsteady.
The causes are different as well. Causes of dizziness can include neck issues, vascular problems, low blood pressure, anemia, low blood sugar, dehydration or heart problems. Anxiety or panic attacks and some medications can also cause dizziness. Meanwhile, most of the causes of vertigo are benign and only require monitoring or simple treatments. However, symptoms should not be ignored because they could be a sign of something more serious.
So, what are causes of vertigo?
There are multiple causes, and we can classify them into two broad categories: peripheral vertigo (issues with your inner ear) and central vertigo (injury or disease of the brain).
Peripheral is the most common type; it can be caused by inner ear problems such as infection from a virus. It can also be caused by little crystals coming loose in the inner ear’s balance centre. Known as Benign Peripheral Positional Vertigo (BPPV), this condition can happen spontaneously or result from a head injury.
Most people who experience peripheral vertigo will have other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, hearing loss or a ringing or whooshing sound in the ears.
Things that cause central vertigo are usually more serious. This is why it’s important to see your doctor when having vertigo symptoms so that more serious causes can be excluded. Though extremely rare, central vertigo causes can include brain tumors, stroke, infection of the nervous system and autoimmune disorders.
How long does it last?
Depending on the cause, vertigo can be very short-lived and resolve on its own.
Peripheral vertigo caused by a viral infection will normally resolve in one to two weeks. BBPV can come and go in dramatic attacks, and will either resolve on its own or with simple treatments.
However, Meniere’s disease – a condition in which people experience vertigo with hearing loss and tinnitus – is usually chronic; it can be managed, but not easily cured.
Central vertigo is usually felt constantly, and will resolve only if the underlying cause is found and treated.
What are the treatment options?
The acute symptoms of peripheral vertigo can be improved with medicine. Of course, it depends on the cause of vertigo. Corticosteroids (cortisone or prednisone) can be helpful in Meniere’s disease or viral infection of the inner ear. Anti-nausea medication and vestibular suppressants (medicine that calms your balance centre) can also help in the short term.
Apart from short courses of medication, the most effective treatment for peripheral vertigo caused by BPPV is repositioning the crystals in their correct place. This can be done with home exercises. However, the help of a middle ear physiotherapist improves the chances of success and speeds up recovery time.
Of course, as with everything, lifestyle can play a big role in the management of vertigo. Depending on the cause, your doctor might recommend that you avoid foods that have a high salt content, along with caffeine and alcohol. Quitting smoking will also be helpful. During vertigo attacks, lying still in a dark or dimly lit room, sleeping with an extra pillow, or performing head movements more slowly can all help reduce the symptoms.
Although most people will have a simple and benign underlying cause, it’s always better to see your doctor and make sure nothing more serious is going on.
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