It comes on suddenly, often with little to no warning. You’re minding your own business, attending to errands and going about your day, when suddenly the room starts to spin. It feels as if the entire world has been tilted on its axis, bumped out of equilibrium by some sort of galactic hip check. Your body remains still, but you still feel a sense of uneasy motion. You may feel nauseous, disoriented or uncomfortable, even scared. It may feel like a medical emergency, but what you’re most likely experiencing is the symptoms of vertigo.
Nearly 70 million Americans suffer from vertigo in some form, including an estimated 35 percent of people over age 40. What causes vertigo is most often a disruption in the normal function of the inner ear, commonly brought about by an inner ear infection or a disease such as Meniere’s disease, vestibular neuritis or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). Serious head injuries and severe migraines may also trigger symptoms of vertigo. More rarely, conditions such as multiple sclerosis, neurodegenerative disorders and brain tumors can also cause vertigo effects.
Worried that you may be suffering from this condition? Read on to learn about the ten most common signs associated with vertigo.
Call it stating the obvious, but the primary sign of vertigo is, well, vertigo. Medically speaking, vertigo is a specific kind of dizziness characterized by feeling the sensation of movement even while you’re stationary. This can manifest itself in a number of ways, but it’s most often described as a feeling that the world around you is spinning, tilting, reeling or otherwise in motion. It may also feel as if your body itself is in motion.
This may come and go in a matter of moments, or it may linger for several hours or longer. The feeling is often exacerbated when you move your head and may sometimes ease or disappear entirely when you lay down.
Loss of Balance
Going hand-in-hand with dizziness, another key sign of vertigo is a loss of balance. If you’ve ever had a little too much to drink, you’re probably quite familiar with this sensation.
You may feel as if the world itself is swaying and buckling, almost like you’re standing atop a bowl of Jell-O during a slow-motion earthquake. Even if you’re standing still, it may feel as though you’re being gently pulled to one side. In severe cases, walking may become extremely difficult and even dangerous.
Picture yourself riding a rollercoaster with an endless series of loops and spins and inversions, or standing aboard the deck of a ship in rough waters, constantly bobbing and heaving and rolling with the waves.
Feeling sick yet? It should come as no surprise, then, that nausea is another common symptom that often accompanies vertigo. Dizziness and balance issues are well-known triggers of nausea, and vertigo may cause acute motion sickness-like symptoms in some people. In severe cases, vertigo may even cause vomiting.
A fancy word for a straightforward symptom, nystagmus simply refers to rapid, involuntary eye movements. It’s not uncommon for vertigo sufferers to experience these repetitive, jerking eye motions especially during the peak of their vertigo symptoms.
The movements are most commonly horizontal, but may also be vertical or even random directions. Some people may also experience rhythmic wobbling or shaking movements. This symptom can make it very difficult to focus on a fixed point and may exacerbate feelings of dizziness and nausea. Nystagmus may continue even when you’ve closed your eyes, creating an uncomfortable sensation that may make it difficult to rest your eyes or sleep.
Is that a phone call or are your ears ringing? With vertigo, it may be hard to tell.
That’s because ringing in the ears, also known as tinnitus, is a relatively common symptom that sometimes accompanies vertigo. It may occur as a repetitive ringing, buzzing or pinging sound, a high-pitched whine or hum or a vague, indeterminate sense of sound lingering just in the background. Its severity ranges from subtle and hardly noticeable to completely distracting, and it may be constant or intermittent.
Tinnitus tends to become most pronounced when the background noise level is low, and it may affect one or both ears. Oddly, some tinnitus sufferers may even hear distinct melodies and other musical sounds.
Along with tinnitus, vertigo can also be accompanied by sudden hearing loss. Sudden hearing loss most often occurs unilaterally, meaning that it affects only one ear, but it can sometimes affect both. The effect may be minor, resulting in slightly dulled hearing or a minor reduction in volume, or it may be a near-total loss of hearing.
Studies have shown that as many as half of all vertigo sufferers will also experience hearing loss at least once. Hearing loss may also be accompanied by a feeling of pressure or fullness in the affected ear or ears, described by some sufferers – rather creatively – as feeling as though your ears have been stuffed with styrofoam.
Conversely, a small percentage of people actually experience the opposite: acute sensitivity to sound. This condition is called hyperacusis, and it occurs very rarely among vertigo sufferers.
Vertigo can be a real headache. No, really.
Many vertigo sufferers experience headaches along with dizziness and other symptoms, and in the case of migraines, the headache may even be the cause of vertigo symptoms. Headaches may occur before, during or after vertigo symptoms and are often described as “pressure” headaches, causing a distinct sensation of your head being squeezed or constricted.
Because both vertigo and headaches can be triggered by one another, the relationship between cause and effect isn’t always clear. However, if you frequently suffer from migraines, it’s more likely that the migraines are causing vertigo symptoms.
It may be a frequently overlooked symptom, but excess sweating often accompanies severe bouts of vertigo. This most often occurs on the forehead, top of the head, chest and neck, but vertigo may also trigger generalized sweating all over your body.
The relationship between vertigo and profuse sweating is not entirely clear, but it’s believed to be associated with a release of hormones from the adrenal gland that causes the body to enter a fight-or-flight response. This may lead to increased sweating and rising body temperatures as well as xerostomia, also known as dry mouth. While this usually isn’t a serious issue, excessive sweating over a long period can cause mild dehydration.
Along with sweating, another symptom that can be triggered by the release of hormones from the adrenal gland is rapid heartbeat, also known as tachycardia.
While this isn’t uncommon and is not necessarily dangerous in itself, rapid heartbeat can indicate underlying health problems and should be evaluated by a doctor. This may also cause shortness of breath and may exacerbate other symptoms. In addition to a rapid heartbeat, vertigo can sometimes be accompanied by irregular heartbeat and arrhythmia.
Anxiety and Panic Attacks
If you aren’t familiar with the effects of vertigo, the sudden onset of symptoms can be scary. So scary, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for vertigo sufferers to experience panic attacks when symptoms occur.
This is a normal and generally harmless condition, but it may cause symptoms like chest and arm pains, shortness of breath, sudden fatigue, numbness or tingling and other effects that mimic more serious conditions like heart attacks and strokes. As is often the case with panic attacks, these symptoms may be joined by an intense fear or sense of doom that only reinforces the panic symptoms.
Panic attacks may last for seconds, minutes or even hours in the most extreme cases, but are rarely harmful or life-threatening on their own.
Vertigo is a surprisingly common condition, yet many people lack a full understanding of the symptoms and the underlying causes. While it’s not a grave condition on its own, it can present a safety risk if not properly managed. It’s far more common among older adults, but it can occur in people of all ages.
If you believe you’re suffering from the above symptoms and you’re wondering what to do if you have vertigo, consult a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and a discussion of the available treatment options.