Dizziness, vertigo and disequilibrium are common complaints many people report to their doctors, but finding the cause can be a frustrating experience. There are an incredible number of potential causes for dizziness and singling out the source can be difficult. Dehydration, medications, muscle tension, low blood sugar, blood flow issues, neurological disorders, vestibular dysfunction and even stress and fatigue can all cause dizziness. Your doctor will screen you for many of these conditions, but the process may involve multiple tests and referrals to specialists.
Accurately describing your symptoms is important for obtaining the right diagnosis. People often incorrectly use the term ‘dizziness’ to describe a great variety of symptoms, making it difficult for doctors to identify the source. Dizziness refers to the sensation of lightheadedness whereas disequilibrium is the feeling of unsteadiness. Vertigo, on the other hand, involves the feeling of spinning or movement of either yourself or the room around you. The duration and situations in which symptoms occur are also important.
Although many different conditions can cause dizziness, vertigo is typically a sign of a vestibular or inner ear disorder. The inner ear uses a series of fluid-filled chambers and tunnels to sense movement and how your body is positioned relative to gravity. Your body relies on your inner ear as well as your vision and proprioception (sensation from joints and muscles) to maintain your balance. The brain processes information from these three systems to keep you upright and your vision steady. When the inner ear is damaged, it sends faulty signals and your brain may misinterpret the information, making you feel as if you are spinning. Common causes of vestibular dysfunction include head injury, aging and viral infection.
Nancy Key and Emily Yoshino are physical therapists certified in vestibular rehabilitation, a specialty that treats disorders of the inner ear. “Getting treated is important, especially for the older population. Your risk for vestibular-related dizziness increases as you age,” stated Key. “Statistics show that older adults suffering from chronic dizziness or imbalance are two to three times more likely to fall.”
“A fall can drastically change your life if it results in a broken hip. Nearly 25 percent of people who break their hips pass away in the first six months after their fall. Of those who survive, over 50 percent are discharged to the nursing home during their recovery and nearly half of them are still in the nursing home over a year later,” added Yoshino.
Some conditions are easily treated while others require extensive vestibular rehabilitation. The most common vestibular disorder is BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo) and according to recent studies it may account for nearly 50 percent of dizziness in older adults. “Luckily, it is also easily treated and most people feel better after just a few treatments,” stated Yoshino. “Signs of BPPV include brief episodes of vertigo caused by head movement, usually with looking up, rolling over or getting out of bed. Other common vestibular diagnoses include vestibular neuritis, labyrinthitis, Ménière’s disease and secondary endolymphatic hydrops.”
To help decide if you should seek medical care for your dizziness or balance problems, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I feel unsteady?
- Do I lose my balance and fall?
- Do I feel as if the room is spinning around me?
- Do I feel as if I’m moving even though I know I’m sitting or standing still?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, talk to your doctor and make sure to describe your symptoms as clearly as you can to get the best care possible.