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Vertigo and Balance Disorders FAQs

Reviewed by Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

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Q:Vertigo and lightheadedness are the same sensation. True or False?

A:False. Vertigo is most often described as a spinning sensation with loss of balance while lightheadedness is the feeling that a person might faint.

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Q:Vertigo is most commonly associated with which body part?

A:The inner ear. Vertigo is an abnormal sensation that is described by the person as a feeling they are spinning or that the world is spinning around them. Vertigo is most often associated with an inner ear problem.

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Q:The brain uses what to determine the body's positional relationship to the world around it?

A:Eyes, Ears and Position receptors. The brain uses inputs from many sources to understand where the body is located in relationship to the world and to allow it to function. Sensory information from the eyes, ears, and position receptors in the rest of the body help keep the body upright and allow it to move in a coordinated fashion.

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Q:The vestibular system refers to all the inner ear parts involved in balance. True or False?

A:True. The medical term for all of the parts of the inner ear involved with balance is called the vestibular system. The vestibular system measures linear movement, such as the way you perceive a position such as down. The vestibular system also measures rotational movement such as the position of the head. In addition to controlling our sense of balance, posture, and the body's relationship to the space around it, the vestibular system also keeps objects in visual focus as the body moves about.

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Q:What can cause the vestibular system to stop working or to offer incorrect information?

A:Meniere's disease, Labyrinthitis and Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). A number of disorders can cause the vestibular system to stop working properly. These disorders include Meniere's disease, labyrinthitis, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), ear infections, tumors, or trauma. Because the vestibular system helps the body to understand its positional relationship to gravity, any of the aforementioned disorders affecting the inner ear can produce symptoms of vertigo.

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Q:Vertigo is a disease. True or False?

A:False. Vertigo is not a disease. Rather, vertigo itself is a symptom or indicator of an underlying balance problem, either involving the labyrinth of the inner ear or the cerebellum of the brain. If there are issues with the cerebellum, a person may also complain of difficulty with coordination.

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Q:What are symptoms of vertigo and other balance disorders?

A:Nausea, vomiting, and a feeling of floating, spinning, or dizziness. Dizziness (or a feeling of spinning or floating) is a classic symptom of vertigo. Nausea and vomiting are also often associated with vertigo. Frequently, the more intense the vertigo, the more intense the nausea and vomiting become. These symptoms may be so severe that the individual becomes dehydrated and weak.

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Q:Eyes move abnormally to try to compensate for abnormal balance signals. True or False?

A:True. Vertigo is diagnosed by a patient's history and physical examination. Physical examination is helpful in confirming the presence of nystagmus, the abnormal eye motion that the body uses to try to compensate for the abnormal balance signals coming to the brain. Specifically, nystagmus refers to rapid, rhythmic, repetitious, and involuntary eye movements. Nystagmus can be horizontal, vertical, or rotary. Whatever form it takes, nystagmus is an abnormal eye finding and may be a sign of disease within the eye or the nervous system.

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Q:Ringing, swishing, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head describes what common condition?

A:Tinnitus. Tinnitus is a ringing, swishing, or other type of noise that seems to originate in the ear or head. In many cases it is not a serious problem, but rather a nuisance that eventually resolves. Rarely, however, tinnitus can represent a serious health condition. Some tinnitus or head noise is normal. Some people experience tinnitus alongside vertigo, which is an issue rooted in the labyrinth of the inner ear or in the cerebellum of the brain. If other structures of the ear are involved, associated symptoms may include decreased hearing and ringing in the ear (tinnitus).

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Q:Is the Epley maneuver an effective treatment for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)?

A:Yes. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (positional vertigo or BPPV) is caused by movement of the otolith -- a tiny calcium particle the size of a grain of sand -- from the part of the ear that senses gravity to the part that senses head position. The person feels as if their head is turning when it isn't. A two-minute therapy done right in the doctor's office can move the otolith back where it belongs and fix the problem. This therapy, called the Epley maneuver, cures vertigo 80% of the time.

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Q:What should people with vertigo should avoid?

A:Activities that move the head up and down repetitively. People with vertigo symptoms or people that have a tendency to develop vertigo may reduce or eliminate the symptoms by doing the following: changing position slowly; focusing on distant objects when walking and avoiding activities that move the head up and down repetitively.
Note: A person who is having an episode of vertigo should not drive or operate machinery until a doctor says it is safe to do so. People who are subject to sudden instances of vertigo should also avoid climbing ladders or participating in situations that may be dangerous to themselves or others (for example, hiking alone or taking care of children).

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