What to do when vertigo leaves your world in a spin
A sensation that the room is spinning around you may indicate an underlying health issue. Here’s what to do if you experience vertigo.
Dizziness is a common reason for people – particularly the elderly – to see their GP.
While dizziness can include feeling light-headed, faint, or as if you’re losing your sense of balance, vertigo specifically describes a spinning sensation.
After the age of 50, more than a third of Australians have episodes of dizziness and vertigo, according to the Australian Society of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery.
What causes vertigo?
The most common cause of vertigo is an inner-ear disorder.
Our inner ear includes canals filled with fluid and as our head moves, the fluid inside the canals moves and lets our brain know how far and fast we’ve moved our head and in what direction.
Our brain uses this information to coordinate eye movement, so that what we see around us is clear.
When this system goes awry, it can lead to vertigo.
“When you lose the balance function in one ear, the brain gets mismatched signals from each ear and doesn’t know what to do,” says Professor Stephen O’Leary, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.
Crystals dislodging in ear canals
Vertigo can also be caused by crystals dislodging in the ear canals.
“Sometimes crystals end up in the wrong spot in those canals and when you move your head, your brain gets a mismatch of signals,” says Prof O’Leary.
“One ear tells your brain that your head is moving and the other ear says something different.
“When this happens, you experience a spinning sensation but when the fluid in the ear canal settles after a minute or two, that spinning usually eases.”
Migraines and other conditions
A migraine can also lead to vertigo, most commonly in those associated with inner-ear problems.
Common symptoms of this type of migraine include nausea and vomiting, balance problems, feeling unsteady and disoriented, sensitivity to sound and the spinning sensation.
In rarer cases, vertigo is a symptom of Meniere’s disease, an inner-ear disorder that also causes hearing problems and a ringing noise.
“If you have a sudden onset of dizziness out of the blue, see a doctor quickly,” says Profe O’Leary.
“Most times it will be due to a small spasm of the blood vessel in the ear or a viral infection, but on rare occasions it can be a sign of a stroke.”
- Migraines 101: Why they are more than a headache
How to treat vertigo
If you experience vertigo, speak to your GP about when and how it occurs.
“In some cases, people may see a number of health practitioners before they see someone who knows what is going on and who specialises in inner-ear disorders,” says Prof Margie Sharpe, director of the Dizziness and Balance Disorders Centre in Adelaide.
If you do experience vertigo, she advises:
- Sit or lie down and put yourself in a safe position.
- Call a locum or ambulance or go to your GP when safe to do so.
- Sip water because it’s important to maintain fluids your fluids.
“Your GP can also give you an injection to stop you vomiting, dry-retching or if you feel nauseous,” she says.
The cause of the vertigo determines the treatment and management, which often may be a multi-disciplinary approach.
A specialist may use a range of head exercises and manoeuvres tailored to each patient to move inner-ear crystals.
Medication can also be prescribed to help with nausea and vomiting.
“People can become anxious when vertigo happens,” says Prof O’Leary.
“It’s important to not get scared, to take some deep breaths and then wait for the sensation to settle.”
Written by Sarah Marinos.