Sudden dizziness and vertigo symptoms can cause fear and confusion the first time they occur. Navigating the health care system to get the proper diagnosis and treatment for a dizziness disorder can be just as confusing. Matthew G. Crowson, MD, a member of the Vestibular Division at Mass Eye and Ear, explains all things vertigo and where to turn for care.
A bout of vertigo can come out of nowhere: one moment you’re lying in bed or standing, the next you feel as if the room is spinning and lose your balance. While many factors may cause a person to feel “dizzy” or imbalanced, a vertigo episode can be especially concerning the first time it occurs.
“Vertigo can be very scary. It is not subtle, and people might think they’re having a medical emergency and call 9-1-1,” Dr. Crowson, a neurotologist at Mass Eye and Ear who specializes in vestibular disorders, told Focus. “Unfortunately, many patients I see tell me they had no idea where to get care for these symptoms, and this delayed them from getting the treatments they needed.”
Focus asked Dr. Crowson some frequently asked questions about vertigo and how it is properly treated.
What is vertigo?
Vertigo is defined as the illusion of movement: it occurs when parts of your balance system receive false signals telling you that you are moving when, in reality, you are not. This leads to differences in sensation that contributes to feeling a loss of balance.
People with vertigo may feel like they can’t move. In some cases, vertigo is so intense that they become nauseous and sick to their stomach. An episode can resolve in anywhere from seconds to hours depending on the cause.
Some patients will just describe these sensations as feeling “dizzy,” but that can mean different things to different people. Differentiating the symptoms between “vertigo” for the illusion of motion, and “imbalance” for the loss of balance feeling, can help doctors better understand the symptoms and improve a patient’s chancing of getting proper care.
In rarer cases, vertigo symptoms can be a result of a stroke or heart attack, which are medical emergencies. If this vertigo or profound imbalance is the patient’s first attack and if there are any accompanying neurological symptoms of confusion, changed mental status and cognitive function, altered facial movement on one side, slurred speech or loss of strength or coordination of any of the extremities, this is a potentially life-threatening stroke. The person must be taken to the nearest emergency room immediately. In the absence of these symptoms, it might be a vertigo episode of another origin.
Which specialists treat vertigo?
For patients who suspect they have vertigo, it is best to see a physician who is familiar with the most common causes of dizziness and balance disorders, also known as vestibular conditions. True vertigo typically involves a problem with the balance center of the inner ear. A neurotologist is a type of otolaryngologist (ENT) who specializes in care and surgery for conditions of the inner ear. While many general ENTs may have a special interest in vestibular conditions, it can difficult to find a general practitioner who treats them. Unfortunately, some patients will see a clinician who does not have as much experience in vestibular disorders, and are told nothing can be done.
Sometimes, patients with vertigo symptoms have disorders that do not involve the inner ear. A neurotologist might refer these patients to other medical professionals depending on the suspected cause. For example, a neurologist can be helpful if a central nervous system disorder is suspected. If the vertigo is caused by a disorder in eye movements, the patient may see a neuro-ophthalmologist. Patients with general balance disorders might benefit from vestibular therapy with a physical therapist. Some patients with vestibular disorders may develop anxiety or major depression. In these situations, behavioral and mental health professionals may be able to help.
Patients with vertigo will often benefit from a team approach to their care.
What causes vertigo?
Vertigo can be caused by many conditions. Among the most common is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) where small calcium particles end up in one of the inner ear’s balance canals. BPPV causes patients to have intense but brief vertigo with abrupt changes in head position, such as when patients roll over in bed, or tilt their head back.
Vestibular migraine is one of the most common diagnoses I see in my clinic. This is when episodes of vertigo occur in a person with a history of migraines. The symptoms have a lot of overlap with other vestibular disorders, so it is often overlooked. Meniere’s disease is a chronic progressive disorder of the ear that causes vertigo along with hearing loss over time. This is rarer and is sometimes over-diagnosed. Some infections or inflammatory events happen in the inner ear – such as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis – can also cause vertigo.
A neurotologist can help determine the cause of the vertigo, which will influence the treatment course.
How is vertigo diagnosed and treated?
A thorough medical history can provide much of the information we use for a diagnosis. We will ask a patient when and how the dizziness happened, and uncover the triggers. We also will order a hearing test since some disorders affect both systems. We may order additional vestibular tests if we think that extra information would be helpful, or imaging if the central nervous system is involved.
Some vestibular disorders respond to medications. For example, if we suspect a patient has a vestibular migraine, we will discuss different therapies, medications, a special diet and supplements, in addition to techniques for modifying lifestyle factors that may trigger symptoms.
We also regularly engage our physical therapy colleagues for many of these chronic vestibular disorders. These specially trained physical therapists are an underutilized and essential part of vestibular disorder care. Many patients benefit greatly from vestibular therapy.
For certain causes of vertigo that can’t be controlled with medication and lifestyle changes, more invasive options such surgery may be an option.
Why should I do physical therapy?
This is one of the most common questions patients ask, and I tell them that this isn’t the same physical therapy they are thinking of where people are ‘pumping weights,’ stretching, or working on general conditioning after an injury.
In vestibular therapy, physical therapists are doing exercises for the brain to reestablish the sense of balance. This might include exercises that desensitize a patient to the things that make them feel imbalanced, or help improve eye gaze stability. These exercises can take the form of balancing on a foam pad or doing eye and head movements.
Patients with vestibular disorders may become overloaded with stimuli in their daily lives. Balance disorders can cause the brain to have less tolerance and stamina for daily activities. Outings as simple as going to a busy grocery store, crowded restaurants, or driving in heavy traffic can trigger vestibular symptoms. Vestibular therapy treatments can help habituate patients with the triggers so that they can operate activities as they did before their symptoms began.
One thing to keep in mind is that it is important to make sure your therapist has expertise and dedicated training in vestibular therapy. We find our patients do best with therapists who devote most, if not all of their time, to treating patients with balance disorders.
Watch Dr. Crowson explain more on the “Talk Dizzy To Me” podcast or listen here.
About our expert
Matthew G. Crowson, MD, is a fellowship-trained ENT who specializes in adult and pediatric balance disorders, in addition to treating patients with hearing loss. He sees patients at the Main Campus in Boston, and the Quincy and Braintree locations.
I get light headed and lose my balance.
Is this the same dx??
Hi Lois thanks for your comment. A specialist with vestibular disorder expertise may be able to best determine the cause of any loss of balance.
I do balance testing I found this article interesting I do see alot of patients who are very frustrated with Vertigo
Thank you for reading and your comment Debra, our hope in getting the word out is to let patients know what options they might have.
Very helpful commentary, thank you. I
Thanks for reading and the kind words, Alistair!
Can BPPV be caused by heavy lifting? I recently experienced several episodes of exactly what you described, and they started when I turned over in bed a few hours after extensive lifting. By sitting up straight, they seem to be quenched after perhaps 15-20 seconds. But VERY intense. I visited a neurologist today because of this problem, and upon examination and serious head manipulation without me quoting your article he suggested that it was likely BPPV. I think his manipulation really helped. My question is whether the lifting could have triggered the problem?
Hi Richard, we are sorry to hear what you’ve been going through but are glad you are finding help. Lifting heavy objects/the act of bending over to pick things up might change the head’s position, and accordingly might lead to BPPV, but an exam from a neurotologist might be better able to pinpoint the exact cause of what is happening.
I had a vestibular swarm o a removed 2 years ago. I now getting a little dizzy when I get up evenl slowly and even just standing still. Do you think this is related. Also lost my hearing completely in that ear
Hi Maureen, thanks for reading and the comment. The hearing and balance systems are “next-door neighbors,” so sometimes both can be impacted. Following up with a physician for evaluation of your personal situation would be the best path forward.
Out of the blue 2 years ago I experienced vestibular neuritis. It was truly scary. I was dehydrated from vomiting for 2 days, my pulse rate hovered below 45, my temperature was under 96° yet I still shook with chills, my speech was slurred. My first steps with an FFW were tenuous. I was referred to vestibular/balance therapy at MGH. It was hard work and some of the exercises seemed counter-intuitive but I am so glad I hung in.
Grateful for the expertise at the MGH balance team!!
Susan, thanks for your comment, we’re so glad to hear you’re feeling better and had a great experience with vestibular therapy!
Great article. Several years ago I spent three days in a local hospital with vertigo. It just disappeared then, without medication. Just one thing: “nauseous” means “causing nausea” . The appropriate word here is “nauseated”.
Thanks for reading Donald, we are glad you liked the article and that your vertigo episode resolved on its own. Thanks also for the flag. We’ve come across this grammar debate before, it’s a hot-button topic that’s generated many articles!
I have had lightheadedness, then off balance for a few years. I did see a Neurologist at Mass Eye & Ear 2 years ago who had me take a few tests.
He claims all was normal and said it was a virus. No such luck!
I do get lightheaded and off balance every once in a while – no specific times. I recently fell on the tennis court because there was nothing to hold onto!
Please contact me. I need some help or therapy.
Hi Lois, we’re sorry to hear what you’re going through. Lightheadedness can be caused by different conditions, many of which may not be related to the inner ear balance system. This would be a good scenario to raise with your physician, or for an appointment with Dr. Crowson, you can contact 617-573-6559.
Do ENT doctors who specialize in adult balance disorders see patients at the Stoneham MA office or any office in that area…Thank you
I was diagnosed with BPPV 2 years ago after an auto accident. I recovered and had no symptoms until February 21 and went for PT – seemed to get better. Since April, I have had constant vertigo – sometimes acute, mostly mild. I am so careful not to move my head at this point. Epley maneuver at home helps some. Is there any hope?
Hi Kathyrn, sorry to hear what you are going through. We can’t give medical advice over our blog, but our doctors in our Balance program might have some ideas. For an appointment you can call: 617-573-3954.
I suffered from vertigo for a long time. A few years ago, I stood up from my chair and the room began to spin. I fell and my head hit the tiles, causing a severe concussion and a mild skull fracture. Even though there was no permanent damage, I knew I might not be so lucky next time. Luckily, I found these powerful vertigo and dizziness exercises and no my vertigo was gone in just days: http://www.healthwise101.com/vertigo-exercises-that-really-work
Hi Kelly, thanks for sharing and glad you’re feeling better. We tell our patients it’s important to follow-up with a doctor and vestibular therapist before trying exercises yourself home. For some patients with vertigo, depending on the cause, exercises can make things feel worse.
I began to experience mild vertigo in my early forties. Little by little, the attacks became more frequent and severe. Driving was the first thing to go. After almost causing a multi-car, high-speed accident, I didn’t dare touch a vehicle again. My mobility was becoming more limited and I started to isolate myself rather out of shame than actual need. It was just too embarrassing to have people stare at me when I had to sit down on the floor and hold my head when the spinning, dizzy feeling came. Doctors were well meaning but had no solutions. Luckily, I discovered these four groups of vertigo exercises that started getting rid of vertigo within 15 minutes: http://www.healthwise101.com/15-minute-exercises-for-vertigo Now I am 100% vertigo and dizziness free and I can drive and have a normal life like before.