Vertigo is a term used to describe a feeling of dizziness, as if you are spinning and the rest of the world is still.
The dizziness and lightheaded feeling can affect balance and lead to headaches. It is not a condition itself, but rather a symptom that occurs with a broad range of conditions. Most commonly vertigo is the result of issues with the nerve paths for the sensory system and issues within the ear. This sensation can be experienced at any age, but it is more common to occur in people who are 65 years or older in addition to people who suffer from underlying conditions. Vertigo episodes can be temporary or long-term, and episodes can last for minutes or hours.
How Does Vertigo Happen?
The outer ear consists of a canal, the eardrum, three tiny bones, the cochlea, and the vestibular nerve. Sound travels in waves through the canal to the eardrum. Sound vibrations are sent to the three tiny bones then to the cochlea. At the vestibular nerve, the sound signals are then sent to the brain for interpretation. The inner ear, however, is not responsible in the hearing process and is where vertigo begins.
The vestibular system makes the inner ear structure. There are three canals in a semi-circular shape that are each lined with very sensitive nerve cells. Small hair cells line structures called the utricle and saccule. The canals also contain small calcium crystals that play a role in vestibular system function. All of these elements work together to provide information to the brain based on nerve cell feedback. This feedback is what our brain uses to determine our position within our surroundings, and what leads to vertigo if any issues occur in the inner ear.
Inflammation, infection, and fluid accumulation can be causes of vertigo. These ear issues result in faulty information getting transmitted through the vestibular system, which affects how the brain determines position. Inflammation can disrupt the tiny hair cells and throw the system off. Infection may not disrupt hearing but it can affect how sound vibrations are interpreted. Fluid accumulation (also called Meniere’s disease) dampens signal transmission from the nerves in the inner ear.
Head injury, strokes, migraines, and some medications can also be a cause of vertigo. These causes affect the brain instead of the inner ear. More specifically, it affects the brain’s ability to process the information being transmitted from the vestibular system. Faulty processing can disrupt how the brain determines a person’s position in the environment.
Preventing and Treating Vertigo
Treatments for vertigo are largely dependent on the cause. Vertigo, in most cases, resolves on its own. There are some instances, however, when vertigo requires medical attention. One common treatment method for vertigo is physical therapy. Rehabilitation involves retraining the other senses to take over when episodes of vertigo occur and works to strengthen the elements within the vestibular system so they are not as sensitive to disruption. Repositioning is a series of movements that work to move calcium crystals out of the inner ear canals so that disruption of these crystals does not occur. Medications may be given to reduce other symptoms that occur as a result of the vertigo, such as motion sickness, headaches, and nausea.
The prevention of vertigo requires a bit of diligence. Avoid quick movements of the head. Instead of bending over, squat down. Add more pillows at night for more head elevation. Try not to stand up quickly when getting out of bed or after sitting for a prolonged period. If a doctor has provided therapy movements, continue those as directed.