Vertigo is a feeling of spinning or whirling when you are not moving. It can also be an exaggerated feeling of motion without moving your body. It is the most common form of dizziness, but is different from light-headedness (the feeling of nearly passing out).
Vertigo is usually caused by problems in the nerves and structures of the inner ear, called the vestibular system. This system senses the position of your head and body in space as they move.
Vertigo can occur with the following conditions:
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)
Tiny particles naturally present in the canals of the inner ear, dislodge, and move abnormally when the head is tilted, pushing ear fluid against hair-like sensors in the ear. BPPV may result from:
- Head injury
- Disorders of the inner ear
- Age-related breakdown of the vestibular system
- Labyrinthitis (vestibular neuritis)—inflammation of the inner ear, often follows an upper respiratory infection
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo
This condition results from fluid buildup in the part of the inner ear called the labyrinth. This vertigo usually occurs along with hearing loss and
This is a slow-growing, noncancerous tumor of the acoustic nerve. The tumor can press against the nerves of hearing which can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ear).
This refers to diminished blood flow to the base of the brain often caused by
Medications and Other Substances
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
Risk factors include:
- Family history
- Head injury
- Viral upper respiratory infection
- Cerebrovascular disease—deposits of fat in blood vessels leading to the brain
Most cases of vertigo occur with nystagmus , an abnormal, rhythmic, jerking eye movement. Other symptoms depend on the condition causing the vertigo.
Symptoms may last only a few seconds, but may come and go for weeks or even years.
- Sudden, short (15-30 seconds), intense bursts of dizziness when you move your head a certain way, roll over in bed, or tip your head back to look up. Symptoms do not occur when the head is held still.
- Feeling like the room is spinning
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Lingering fatigue
Viral Labyrinthitis (Vestibular Neuritis)
Sudden, intense vertigo lasting for several days to one week and often occurring with nausea and vomiting.
Sudden vertigo attacks lasting between minutes and hours and typically occurring with prominent hearing loss and tinnitus.
- True vertigo
- Visual disturbances
- Difficulty speaking
The doctor will ask about your symptoms, medication intake, and medical history, and perform a physical exam. In addition, the following tests may be performed:
- Vestibular maneuvers
- Auditory tests
- Blood pressure test, both lying down and standing up
- Electronystagmogram (ENG)—to check for nystagmus
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
Vertigo due to BPPV, labyrinthitis, or vestibular neuritis may subside on its own, usually within six months of onset (but it may sometimes take longer).
To treat vertigo and nausea:
- Meclizine (Antivert, Bonine, Dramamine, Meclicot, Medivert)
- Dimenhydrinate (Calm X, Dinate, Dramamine, Dramanate, Hydrate, Triptone)
- Promethazine (Anergan, Antinaus, Pentazine, Phenazine, Phencen, Phenergan, Phenerzine, Phenoject, Pro-50, Promacot, Pro-Med 50, Promet, Prorex, Prothazine, Shogan, V-Gan)
- Scopolamine (Transderm-Scop)
- Diazepam (Diastat, Diazepam Intensol, Dizac, Valium)
To treat Meniere's disease:
- Low-salt diet
- Antibiotics injected into the middle ear
Most often used to treat BPPV:
- Semont maneuver—The patient is moved rapidly from lying on one side to the other (also called liberatory maneuver).
- Epley maneuver—This maneuver involves head exercises to move the loose particles to a place in the ear where they won't cause dizziness. A recent study suggested that patients who demonstrate involuntary eye movements (nystagmus) in the same direction through two steps of the maneuver tend to recover better than those whose eyes move in a different pattern or do not move at all. *
If you continue to experience vertigo, the maneuvers can be repeated, or more difficult maneuvers such as Brandt-Daroff exercises can be done.
Physical therapy can also be helpful.
If symptoms persist for a year or more and cannot be controlled by the maneuvers, several surgical procedures can be performed. A surgical procedure called "canal plugging" may be recommended.
Canal plugging completely stops the posterior semicircular canal's function without affecting the functions of the other canals or parts of the inner ear. This procedure poses a small risk to hearing. Other surgical procedures include removing parts of the vestibular nerve or semicircular canals in the inner ear. Gentamycin injections can also be done. Talk with your doctor to learn more about these injections.
Treatment of the Underlying Cause
Vertigo can be a symptom of another medical condition, such as a heart problem or a neurological problem. Once that condition is treated, vertigo should stop, or, in this case, the underlying medical problem should be treated to help relieve the vertigo.
If you are diagnosed as having vertigo, follow your doctor's instructions .
If you are prone to vertigo, the following precautions may help prevent an episode:
- Rest your head on two or more pillows while sleeping.
- Avoid sleeping on the "bad side" of your head.
- In the morning, get up slowly and sit on the edge of the bed for a minute before standing.
- Avoid bending down to pick items up.
- Avoid extending your neck, such as to get something out of a cabinet.
- Be careful at the dentist's office, hair salon, in sports activities, or positions where your head is flat or extended.
American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery
Vestibular Disorders Association
Balance And Dizziness Disorders Society
Canadian Academy of Audiology
American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home.html .
Vestibular Disorders Association website. Available at: http://www.vestibular.org .
Updated Maneuvers section on 9/6/2007 according to the following study, as cited by DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance : Oh HJ, Kim JS, Han BI, Lim JG. Predicting a successful treatment in posterior canal benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Neurology. 2007;68:1219-1222.
Last reviewed November 2008 by
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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