Vertigo is a sensation of motion or spinning that is often described as dizziness.
Vertigo is not the same as light-headedness. People with vertigo feel as though they are actually spinning or moving, or that the world is spinning around them.
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
There are two types of vertigo:
- Peripheral vertigo occurs if there is a problem with the part of the inner ear that controls balance (vestibular labyrinth or semicircular canals) or with the vestibular nerve, which connects the inner ear to the brainstem.
- Central vertigo occurs if there is a problem in the brain, particularly in the brainstem or the back part of the brain (cerebellum).
Vertigo related to the inner ear may be caused by:
Vertigo related to the vestibular nerve may be caused by:
- Inflammation (neuronitis)
- Nerve compression (usually a noncancerous tumor such as a meningioma or schwannoma)
Vertigo related to the brainstem may be caused by:
The primary symptom is a sensation that you or the room is moving or spinning. With central vertigo, there are usually other symptoms from the condition causing the vertigo. Symptoms can include:
The spinning sensation may cause nausea and vomiting in some people.
Signs and tests
A physical exam may reveal:
- Eye movement problems, involuntary eye movements (nystagmus)
- Lack of coordination and balance, difficulty walking
- Hearing loss
Tests to determine the cause of vertigo may include:
Medications to treat peripheral vertigo may include:
- Anticholinergics (such as scopolamine)
- Antihistamines (such as meclizine)
- Benzodiazepines (such as diazepam or lorazepam)
- Promethazine (to treat nausea and vomiting)
Benign positional vertigo is most often treated with physical maneuvers that help reposition small structures in the semicircular canals of the inner ear. This reduces or stops the vertigo.
The cause of central vertigo should be identified and treated as appropriate.
Try to avoid head positions that cause vertigo. Use caution in situations such as driving, walking, or operating heavy equipment. Even short episodes of vertigo may be dangerous.
The outcome depends on the cause.
Persistent, unrelieved vertigo can interfere with driving, work, and lifestyle. It can also cause falls, which can lead to many injuries, including hip fractures.
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if vertigo is persistent or troublesome.
Baloh RW. Hearing and equilibrium. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 454.
Bauer CA, Jenkins HA. Otologic symptoms and syndromes. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al., eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2005; chap 126.
David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; and Daniel B. Hoch, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997-
A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.