Vertigo is a sensation of motion or spinning that is often described as dizziness.
Vertigo is not the same as light-headedness. People with vertigo feel as though they are actually spinning or moving, or that the world is spinning around them.
Peripheral vertigo; Central vertigo
Causes, incidence, and risk factors
There are two types of vertigo:
- Peripheral vertigo occurs if there is a problem with the part of the inner ear that controls balance (vestibular labyrinth or semicircular canals) or with the vestibular nerve, which connects the inner ear to the brainstem.
- Central vertigo occurs if there is a problem in the brain, particularly in the brainstem or the back part of the brain (cerebellum).
Vertigo related to the areas in the inner ear that control balance (vestibular labyrinth or semicircular canals) may be caused by:
- Benign positional vertigo (also called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo)
- Drugs such as aminoglycoside antibiotics, cisplatin, diuretics, or salicylates
- Injury (such as head injury)
- Meniere's disease
Vertigo related to the problems with vestibular nerve may be caused by:
- Inflammation (neuronitis)
- Pressure on a nerve (most often due to a noncancerous tumor such as a meningioma or schwannoma)
Vertigo related to the brainstem may be caused by:
The primary symptom is a sensation that you or the room is moving or spinning. The spinning sensation may cause nausea and vomiting in some people.
Other symptoms can include:
- Difficulty focusing the eyes
- Hearing loss in one ear
- Loss of balance
- Ringing in the ears
If you have vertigo due to problems in the brain (central vertigo), you will usually other symptoms from the underlying conditions. They may include:
Signs and tests
A physical exam may reveal:
- Eye movement problems or involuntary eye movements (nystagmus)
- Lack of coordination and balance
- Difficulty walking
- Hearing loss
Tests to determine the cause of vertigo may include:
Medications to treat peripheral vertigo may include:
- Anticholinergics (such as scopolamine)
- Antihistamines (such as meclizine)
- Benzodiazepines (such as diazepam or lorazepam)
- Promethazine (to treat nausea and vomiting)
The cause of any brain disorder causing vertigo should be identified and treated when possible.
Persistent balance problems may improve with physical therapy. To prevent worsening of symptoms during episodes of vertigo, try the following:
- Keep still and rest when symptoms occur.
- Gradually resume activity.
- Avoid sudden position changes.
- Do not try to read when symptoms occur.
- Avoid bright lights.
You may need help walking when symptoms occur. Avoid hazardous activities such as driving, operating heavy machinery, and climbing until 1 week after symptoms have disappeared.
The outcome depends on the cause.
Persistent, unrelieved vertigo can interfere with driving, work, and lifestyle. It can also cause falls, which can lead to many injuries, including hip fractures.
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if vertigo is persistent or troublesome.
Bauer CA, Jenkins HA. Otologic symptoms and syndromes. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund VJ, et al., eds. CummingsOtolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 126.
Kerber KO, Baloh RW. Dizziness, vertigo, and hearing loss: Vascular malformations. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, eds. Bradley: Neurology in Clinical Practice. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Butterworth Heinemann Elsevier; 2008:chap 18.
Reviewed By: Kevin Sheth, MD, Department of Neurology, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.