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What is vertigo?

Vertigo is a symptom in which you feel as if you are moving, spinning or floating, even if you are stationary. Vertigo is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as dizziness, impaired balance, lightheadedness, and nausea. It is estimated that four out of ten Americans may have an episode of vertigo and seek medical attention (Source: NIH).

There are two main types of vertigo, peripheral and central. Peripheral vertigo affects the vestibular system, which includes the inner ear and vestibular nerve and controls balance. Central vertigo is the result of a problem related to the brain.

There are many causes of both types of vertigo, including medication side effects, infection, disorders, and injuries. In some cases, there is no known cause of vertigo. Vertigo may begin or end suddenly, or gradually worsen over time. Vertigo may be temporary or long-term, depending on the underlying cause.

Vertigo may be a symptom of serious or life-threatening condition, such as a traumatic brain injury. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have vertigo and other serious symptoms, such as changes in consciousness, vomiting, severe headache, and abnormal behavior.

Seek prompt medical care if your vertigo is persistent or causes you concern.


What other symptoms might occur with vertigo?

Vertigo may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the vestibular system may also involve other body systems.

Common symptoms that may occur along with vertigo

Often, vertigo may accompany other symptoms including:

  • Blurred or double vision
  • Dizziness
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Lightheadedness
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Ringing sound in the ears (tinnitus)

Less-common symptoms that may occur along with vertigo

Vertigo may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Abnormal movements of the eyes
  • Changes in hearing, taste or smell
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment
  • Difficulty controlling or focusing the eyes
  • Difficulty hearing or loss of hearing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Facial weakness or paralysis
  • Progressive weakness and numbness in the legs or arms
  • Slurred speech

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, vertigo may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have vertigo along with other serious symptoms including:

  • Abnormal pupil size or nonreactivity to light

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions

  • Drowsiness

  • Loss of muscle coordination

  • Paralysis or inability to move a body part

  • Seizures

  • Severe headache

  • Sudden change in vision, loss of vision, or eye pain

  • Vomiting


What causes vertigo?

There are two main types of vertigo, peripheral vertigo and central vertigo. Peripheral vertigo occurs as the result of a problem with the vestibular system, which includes the inner ear and vestibular nerve and controls balance. Central vertigo is the result of a problem related to the brain. In many cases, the precise cause of vertigo is not identified.

Causes of peripheral vertigo

Conditions, damage and diseases affecting to the inner ear and vestibular nerve causing peripheral vertigo include:

  • Acoustic neuroma (benign tumor of the acoustic nerve)

  • Benign positional vertigo (vertigo that occurs only in certain head positions)

  • Cholesteatoma

  • Ear infection

  • Head injury

  • Labyrinthitis (infection or inflammation of the inner ear)

  • Meniere’s disease (disorder of the inner ear characterized by vertigo and ringing in the ears)

  • Motion sickness

  • Perilymphatic fistula (leakage of fluid from the inner ear to the middle ear)

  • Medication side effects

  • Tumors

  • Vestibular neuronitis (inflammation of the vestibular nerve)

Causes of central vertigo

Vertigo can also be caused by conditions, damage and diseases affecting the brain including:

  • Brain injury

  • Exposure to toxic substances or poisons

  • Migraine

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Psychiatric disorders

  • Side effects of medications or drugs, including alcohol, anticonvulsants and aspirin

Serious or life-threatening causes of vertigo

In some cases, vertigo may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of vertigo

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your vertigo including:

  • How long have you felt the symptoms of vertigo?

  • Do you feel lightheaded or faint?

  • Do you feel as if the room is spinning or moving?

  • Have you ever lost your balance or fallen since your vertigo symptoms began?

  • What medications are you taking?

  • Have you experienced an injury or trauma to the head or neck?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of vertigo?

Because vertigo can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Adverse effects of treatment
  • Anxiety
  • Brain damage
  • Depression
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Diminished overall quality of life
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Nerve problems that cause pain, numbness or tingling
  • Paralysis
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Permanent loss of sensation
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Traumatic injuries from falls
  • Unconsciousness and coma
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 27
  1. Balance disorders. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders.
  2. Vertigo-associated disorders. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
  4. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  5. Lempert T, von Brevern M. Episodic vertigo. Curr Opin Neurol 2005; 18:5.
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