What Is Vertigo?

Medically Reviewed By Stacy Sampson, D.O.
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Vertigo is a symptom that involves a feeling of the world spinning around you. It often causes a loss of balance. This article defines vertigo. It also discusses the types, causes, and treatment options related to the symptom.

What is vertigo?

Person sitting and holding their head
Anna Berkut/Stocksy United

Vertigo is a symptom, not a condition. It typically involves feelings of the world spinning or moving around you. This is more than simply feeling dizzy.

Episodes of vertigo typically come on suddenly. They can last only a few seconds or a few hours. In severe cases, episodes can last days or even months.

There are other symptoms that may accompany vertigo, including:

  • a loss of balance
  • nausea or vomiting
  • dizziness

Vertigo often goes away without treatment. However, if you are experiencing vertigo that is persistent or is affecting your day-to-day life, contact your doctor. They will be able to recommend treatment options for the underlying causes of your vertigo.

People often use the term “vertigo” to describe a fear of heights. However, the correct term to describe the fear of heights and the dizziness you may experience when looking down from a great height is “acrophobia.”

Read about when to contact a doctor for dizziness here.

What are the different types of vertigo?

There are two types of vertigo: peripheral and central.

  • Peripheral vertigo: This is the most common type of vertigo. It is often due to an issue with the balance mechanisms in the inner ear.
  • Central vertigo: This type of vertigo is typically due to problems in certain areas of your brain, such as the cerebellum or brainstem.

Each type of vertigo has its own possible underlying causes.

What causes vertigo?

There are several possible causes of vertigo, depending on what type it is. The following sections discuss some of these in more detail.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is the most common cause of vertigo. There are certain factors that differentiate BPPV from other causes of vertigo, including:

  • feelings of vertigo that occur after you change the position of your head
  • no hearing loss or feeling of fullness in your ears
  • mild nausea not severe enough to cause vomiting
  • feelings of vertigo that stop as soon as you turn your head away from the position causing them

BPPV can occur without a known cause. It is also sometimes the result of mild head trauma, major head trauma, or an inner ear issue.

People who develop BPPV generally have some kind of history of experiencing vertigo episodes.

Other peripheral causes

Other causes of peripheral vertigo include:

Central causes

Some causes of central vertigo include:

Vertigo is also rarely due to unknown causes.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of vertigo?

If you are experiencing vertigo that is persistent, is affecting your day-to-day life, or does not go away on its own, it is important for your doctor to find its underlying cause.

During your appointment, your doctor will ask you questions about your vertigo. These may include questions about:

  • the frequency of your episodes
  • details about when you first experienced vertigo
  • any other symptoms you might experience along with vertigo
  • how your symptoms affect your daily life, if at all
  • whether or not there are any triggers for your vertigo
  • what makes your symptoms better

Most likely, your doctor will also want to perform a physical exam. This may include asking you to move your head into positions that may cause an episode of vertigo.

Your doctor may also request that you go for extra testing. These tests may include:

  • a hearing test
  • videonystagmography
  • caloric testing
  • posturography
  • a CT scan
  • an MRI scan

Read about seven things your doctor wants you to know about vertigo.

What are the treatments for vertigo?

Vertigo will often go away on its own without any treatment. Any other treatments depend on the underlying cause of your vertigo.

Treatments for vertigo may include:

  • canalith repositioning procedures, also called Epley maneuvers
  • Brandt-Daroff exercises
  • vestibular rehabilitation training
  • certain medications

If the cause of your vertigo is unknown, your doctor may refer you to a specialist for further diagnostic evaluation. You may need to see a neurologist, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, or an audiovestibular physician.

At-home treatments for vertigo

There are some things you can do at home to help with your vertigo. These include:

  • lying still in a dark and quiet room
  • moving your head carefully and slowly during daily activities
  • sitting down right away when you feel dizzy
  • turning on the lights anytime you get up at night
  • sleeping with your head raised slightly
  • getting out of bed slowly and sitting on the side of the bed for a while before standing up
  • trying to stay calm, as anxiety can make your vertigo worse

Other frequently asked questions

Here are some more questions that people have asked about vertigo. Dr. Stacy Sampson, D.O., provided these answers.

What is the best over-the-counter medication for vertigo?

An antihistamine, such as meclizine, may help improve vertigo symptoms.

Can walking help with vertigo?

If your symptoms improve while sitting upright, walking may improve vertigo symptoms. You should be careful while up on your feet. Also, try not to make any fast or sudden head movements if you are having a vertigo episode.

What are the first symptoms of vertigo?

The first symptoms are typically the feeling the surrounding environment is spinning around you, nausea, a loss of balance, or a migraine headache.

Can stress cause vertigo?

It is possible that stress can make your vertigo seem worse. If changes in your head positioning cause vertigo, such as in BPPV, and you tend to hold your head toward the vertigo-inducing position when you are stressed, avoiding things that cause stress could be beneficial to preventing the triggers leading to vertigo.

Summary

Vertigo is a symptom, not a condition. It involves the feeling of your environment spinning around you.

It often goes away on its own without treatment. However, if it is persistent or starts to affect your daily life, contact your doctor. They will be able to treat any underlying causes of your vertigo.

You can also take steps to manage your vertigo at home. However, it is always important to follow every instruction your doctor gives you.

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Medical Reviewer: Stacy Sampson, D.O.
Last Review Date: 2022 May 16
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