In 1958, audiences first saw the film Vertigo. It was a mystery story about a detective forced to retire due to a paralyzing fear of heights. To illustrate his sense of disorientation, the director Alfred Hitchcock, used a new technique called the “dolly zoom.” It involved pulling back the camera while the lens zoomed in. The technique creates a sense of twisting and stretching that mimics the discomfort and dizziness of the common medical condition known as vertigo. One study concluded that the dizziness of vertigo is one of the main reasons that people will see a doctor, accounting for 3-4% of emergency room visits. 2.4% of all Americans, or roughly 5 million, will experience the most common form of vertigo in their lifetimes, according to a 2007 study.

What is Vertigo?

Patients describe vertigo in several ways. They may speak of the room spinning or floors pushing up against their feet. The condition is most often described as a feeling of imbalance or dizziness with no explanation. Depending on the cause, an episode of vertigo may only last a few seconds, or it may continue for hours. Vertigo may be a one-time event, or it may be a recurring problem.

Besides the general sense of dizziness, there are several other symptoms associated with an episode of vertigo. These include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Tinnitus
  • Hearing loss
  • Eye twitching or jerking

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo

Vertigo is caused by some sort of issue in the inner ear. In the area past the eardrum, there are several organs responsible for the body’s sense of balance and orientation. When the normal function of this area is disrupted, losing orientation – known as vertigo – is the result.

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, or BPPV, is the most common type of vertigo. Characterized by short periods of intense dizziness and patients often find relief from it by changing the position of the head. Deep within the ear, the vestibular labyrinth has three semi-circular structures that contain liquid. The pressure of this liquid helps the body keep its sense of direction. It helps a person know the difference between standing up and lying down.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, small particles of calcium called canaliths can make their way into the inner ear, impairing the function of the vestibular labyrinth. BPPV is often age-related, as older adults are more prone to the condition. However, BPPV can affect people of any age, especially after a head injury.

In most cases, BPPV is temporary. The main treatment is teaching the patient a series of canalith repositioning movements. These slow, sustained movements work to move the particles out of the inner ear where they will no longer affect the patient. In extreme cases, where bouts of vertigo are frequent and disruptive, you may require surgery to relieve the condition.

Other Causes of Vertigo

There are several other common causes of vertigo. Most of these lead to longer episodes of the condition.

Inner ear infection

A patient with an inner ear infection may experience vertigo that lasts for a day or two. Inflamed tissues within the ear will disrupt the proper function of the semicircular canals causing disorientation. This will be especially clear when the patient tries to stand after lying in bed for a time. This kind of infection is usually viral. With time and rest, the symptoms of vertigo will disappear as the infection subsides.

Meniere’s Disease

This disease is caused by fluid buildup in the inner ear. The extra fluid puts pressure on the inner ear affecting balance. The extra fluid can also disrupt the hearing. This kind of vertigo is the one most associated with either hearing loss or tinnitus. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no cure for this disease. Treatments seek to ease the symptoms of vertigo to restore the quality of life. Some basic treatments include diuretics and a low-sodium diet to reduce the amount of fluid kept in the body. Specialists may prescribe anti-nausea medications for symptom relief. More extreme procedures include the surgical removal of the balance center of the inner ear or the cutting of the nerve that connects the brain to the balance center.

Head Injury

Damage to the head or swelling because of a blow can disrupt the balance centers of the inner ear. It can also disrupt the nerves that carry information about balance to the brain. Depending on the amount of damage, vertigo may be a temporary side effect.

Stroke or tumor

Damage to the brain from a stroke or tumor can disrupt the function of an affected system. If the brain misinterprets signals from the inner ear, it will throw off a patient’s balance and their sense of orientation.

Where You Can Learn More

For more information on vertigo, the causes, and what can be done, please visit the site of the Becker ENT Center. The Becker ENT Center helps patients in the Philadelphia area and New Jersey with vertigo, hearing loss and other conditions of the inner ear. The audiologist team at the Becker ENT Center are all qualified professionals with years of experience in all head & neck issues and can provide a better quality of life after treatment.