With SMH Otolaryngology Specialist Jack Wazen, MD
Vertigo is a sudden, unexplained spinning sensation.
It’s the illusion that either you or the environment around you is spinning, rolling, rocking, tilting or whirling, as your senses tell your brain that your body is off balance.
Bouts of vertigo may be mild, lasting for seconds, or severe, lasting minutes, hours or even days. It can cause loss of balance, nausea, and even vomiting or diarrhea.
Nearly 40% of adults in the U.S. will experience vertigo at some point in their lifetime, according to recent statistics. And while it can happen at any age, it’s more prevalent in people older than 65.
Vertigo vs. Dizziness
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, vertigo is not the same thing as dizziness or disequilibrium (imbalance).
“The term ‘dizziness’ is very general,” explains Dr. Jack Wazen, Sarasota Memorial chief of staff and medical director of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery. “So experts created categories to help doctors better diagnose and manage patients.”
- Vertigo: A sudden spinning or tilting sensation.
- Dizziness: A feeling of lightheadedness or a fainting sensation.
- Disequilibrium: A feeling of unsteadiness or imbalance that occurs when standing or moving.
Each of these sensations can be attributed to a different cause.
What Causes Vertigo?
“Vertigo is a sign that something’s not right,” says Dr. Wazen. “It’s a symptom, not a disease.”
Vertigo can result from problems in the brain or sensory nerve pathways, but it’s most often caused by inner ear disorders like benign positional vertigo, Meniere’s Disease, and viral or bacterial labyrinthitis.
Benign positional vertigo is the most common cause. It occurs when tiny calcium crystals in the inner ear shift out of place.
Normally, these crystals sit in their own chamber of the inner ear, giving the brain its sense of gravity. But when they’re out of place, the crystals float in the liquid of the inner ear, telling your brain that your body is off balance and causing vertigo.
Those suffering from benign positional vertigo will notice these sensations when making certain head movements, such as looking upward at something high, bending over to pick something up, or standing up from lying on a bed.
“Most people will experience this at some point in their lives,” says Dr. Wazen. “It’s easily treated and most people respond very quickly to certain maneuvers, like the Epley Maneuver, that move the head to reposition those crystals where they belong.”
Another more serious cause of vertigo is Meniere’s Disease, a common inner-ear disease.
Vertigo attacks due to Meniere’s Disease can be severe, lasting for minutes or even hours. These attacks are unpredictable, recur over time and happen without warning. They can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and can make it hard to walk without assistance.
Meniere’s Disease can also cause loss of hearing and/or tinnitus, which is a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ear.
Another common cause of vertigo is labyrinthitis (viral or bacterial), an ear infection typically caused by cold or flu spreading to the inner ear.
Healthy Habits to Fight Vertigo
A healthy lifestyle has ripple effects — and can even help reduce vertigo occurrences. Keep vertigo at bay with these healthier habits:
- Practice stress management.
- Quit smoking/vaping, avoid tobacco products.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Eat a low-salt diet.
- Reduce caffeine intake.
Can Vertigo Be Treated?
Benign positional vertigo and labyrinthitis are usually easily treated, but severe vertigo due to something like Meniere’s Disease requires more serious intervention.
“The myth is that there's nothing that can be done if you have Meniere’s Disease,” says Dr. Wazen. “But that is certainly wrong. We can stop the vertigo from Meniere's Disease using a multitude of options.”
Roughly 70% to 80% of patients with vertigo from Meniere’s Disease react well to medication alone, Dr. Wazen says. And for those requiring additional intervention, treatment options range from simple in-office procedures to surgery on the inner ear.
For example, the Silverstein MicroWick device can be implanted in the ear during a simple office visit, allowing patients to easily self-treat at home. With the MicroWick in place, patients simply apply medicinal drops to their outer ear and the MicroWick transports the medication through the ear canal to the inner ear, where it’s needed.
For drug-resistant Meniere’s Disease, surgical treatment can successfully stop vertigo and preserve hearing.
“People don’t just have to live with vertigo and Meniere’s Disease,” Dr. Wazen says. “They can seek care with specialists.”
Where to Go for Relief?
If you’re living with vertigo or dizziness, talk to a doctor about diagnosis and treatment options.
Your primary care doctor can get you on the right track, or make an appointment with an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist or an Otolaryngology specialist like those at the First Physicians Group Silverstein Institute.
Need help finding a specialist? Our HealthLine physician referral team can help: Click here or call 941-917-7777.
Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. A local journalist and SMH’s in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, Ky.