Family Health: Treating underlying cause can relieve vertigo

If you want a quick refresher on what vertigo feels like, think back to spinning around on a merry-go-round and then stepping off. You’re standing still, but it feels as though you, or your surroundings, are still moving.

Merry-go-rounds aside, vertigo is a problem for many people. It’s not the same as dizziness, which refers to light-headedness or faintness. But together these are among the most frequent reasons people visit a doctor. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, vertigo is sometimes mild and resolves quickly. For some people, though, it can turn simple movements into overwhelming tasks.

Vertigo is not a disease in itself, but instead a symptom of another condition. For example, what’s known as central vertigo is caused by a condition of the brain, such as multiple sclerosis, migraine, stroke or blood vessel disease. It can also come from a head injury or from taking certain medicines, including anti-convulsants and aspirin. Non-cancerous brain tumors can put pressure on nerves and cause central vertigo. And the spinning-room sensation from drinking alcohol is central vertigo.

The other main type is peripheral vertigo. It results from problems with the inner ear, which plays an important role in balance. Vertigo can happen with inner ear conditions such as:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. This happens when the tiny calcium particles in the inner ear that aid balance get displaced. You’ll notice this type of vertigo when you turn your head or lean over suddenly.
  • Meniere’s disease. The cause of this condition is unclear, but it’s probably related to increased fluid in the inner ear. Along with sudden attacks of severe vertigo, it can cause nausea and hearing loss.
  • Vestibular neuritis. This happens when the nerve connections in the inner ear become infected, probably with a virus. It begins suddenly and usually lasts two to three weeks.
  • Labyrinthitis. This is caused by an infection of inner-ear structures called the labyrinthine organs.

Treatment for both central and peripheral vertigo usually involves treating the underlying condition. That can include medications, surgery, reducing stress, and making diet and other lifestyle changes. For BPPV, your doctor can help you perform a specific series of movements, called the Eply maneuver, that helps return the displaced crystals to their correct place.

The likelihood of having vertigo increases with age. If you feel that merry-go-round spinning sensation, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that can be treated, getting you back to walking on solid ground.