When you look up the meaning of vertigo in the dictionary, it generally specifies a sensation of dizziness that is felt at great heights, for instance, while looking down from the top of the Empire State Building, an experience that will definitely make your head spin! Even Alfred Hitchcock’s stunning success ‘Vertigo’ narrates the story of a man and his miserable fear of heights, known as acrophobia.
But you will be surprised to know that this sensation of giddiness felt at a height is quite common among many and in fact, the medical definition of vertigo is quite different.
So, what exactly does vertigo mean in medical terms?
Vertigo is defined as the feeling of giddiness that one experiences “in the absence of associated movement”; resulting from underlying causes (Eg: viral infection, injury of head or neck, heart disease) affecting either the ear, brain or pathways of the sensory nerves in the body.
This essentially means that you may feel the world moving around you even while you are sitting, just like during an earthquake, when in fact your surroundings are still and you’re suffering from a spell of Vertigo.
Do you have dizziness or vertigo? Here’s how you can tell the difference:
Dizziness constitutes a multitude of sensations. It may be a kind of light-headedness, wherein you may be feeling a bit unsteady on the feet. On other occasions, you may feel a bit unsteady with the movement of your head, a feeling like it is about to catch up with you in time.
On the other hand, Vertigo generally leads to an illusion of bodily movement.Under normal circumstances, the brain’s recognition of your movement happens through transfer of signals from the ears and receptors, but in case of vertigo, one feels the world whirling or spinning, even while standing still.
Vertigo has been characterized into two types, depending upon the cause of the dizziness-
- Peripheral Vertigo– If you have been diagnosed with vertigo, it is highly likely that it is of this type, because it affects 60% of the individuals. Peripheral vertigo affects tiny organs of the inner ear, which help maintain body balance. The disturbance of the tiny organs result in a bout of vertigo, the causes of which can be inflammation, sudden head movement and viral infections such as labyrinthitis (inner ear inflammation)and Meniere’s disease (an inner ear condition that causes tremendous dizziness and even loss of hearing).
- Central Vertigo– This type affects 40% of the individuals diagnosed with vertigo and as the name implies, is a result of disturbance in the central nervous system of the body. Central vertigo is a result of a certain disturbance in the parts of the brain responsible for interpreting signals from the ear and eyes or disruption of sensory messages transferred back and forth from the thalamus (mid symmetrical structure within the two halves of one’s brain). One of the most common reasons for central vertigo is migraine. Tumour and stroke can also cause this type of vertigo.
Let’s consider some basic facts about vertigo, which may help you effectively deal with it:
- Vertigo is not a condition, but a symptom
Vertigo is not an ailment or a medical condition, which requires diagnosis. It is a symptom, which is quite temporary and generally occurs because of an underlying cause that needs to be diagnosed. You may suffer from vertigo due to a number of reasons, such as-
- Inflammation or a tumour in the inner ear
- Heart disease
- Multiple sclerosis (a condition wherein the protective sheath of the nerve cells gets damaged)
- Meniere’s disease
- Disorder of the inner ear
- The onset of vertigo may be sudden and out of nowhere
Generally, a spell of vertigo does not come with a warning. This sudden onset of dizziness may be accompanied by ‘Nystagmus’, which is a condition characterized by rapid and uncontrollable eye movement; this can prevent you from focusing properly. Vertigo followed by ‘Nystagmus’ can also interfere with your mobility.
You may experience vertigo because of a sudden head movement or when you move it in a particular way
Benign positional vertigo, which is known to be the most common kind of vertigo, generally occurs with the movement of the head in a particular way, which upsets the crystals in the inner ear. For instance, if you lie down with the affected ear positioned towards the ground, you may be hit with a bout of vertigo.The crystals play an important role in sending signals to the brain for effective movement. When the crystals shift due to a particular movement of the head, they send messages to the brain that you have moved even when you are quite still. This makes you feel lightheaded and nauseous.
Vertigo is more common in older adults
According to medical science, vertigo commonly affects older adults because of the degenerative changes that take place in the inner ear. Generally, adults above the age of 65 experience vertigo.
An easy manoeuvre can make it go away!
The Epley manoeuvre, generally performed by an ENT, is a series of simple movements, known to help greatly with vertigo. Primarily what the manoeuvre does is it reposes the crystals in the inner ear canal. Thus, it greatly helps relieve dizziness and discomfort in patients who suffer frombenign positional vertigo (BPV).
Research has revealed that the Epley manoeuvre successfully relieves vertigo in 85% of the cases. Once the crystals reposition themselves, it may take about 24 hours for the dizziness to subside entirely.
If you think you are experiencing vertigo, ask yourself this question:
Did I just feel lightheaded or did I experience my surrounding move?
If it is the latter, make an appointment with your general physician or an ENT specialist, who will guide you in the diagnosis and treatment of vertigo and its underlying cause.
Can vertigo be treated?
Sometimes, vertigo may subside or even correct itself without any treatment. On other occasions, it may continue to get increasingly severe, thus requiring medical aid. The types of treatment options available for individuals depend on the severity of the condition. The modes of treatment have been listed below:
- Vertigo manoeuvres– As discussed before, the Epley manoeuvre effectively helps with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV).
- Surgery– Although very rare, your doctor may suggest a surgery in case of BPPV. This is only under the condition that the Epley manoeuvre fails to show positive results. Surgery yields successful results in almost 90% of the cases and is usually quite safe.
- Treatment with symptomatic drugs – Vestibular suppressants and antiemetics (medicines to treat cases of nausea and vomiting) are generally prescribed to reduce dizziness and nausea. Steroids and antibiotics such as Diazepam, Ondansetron and Lorazepam also help with vertigo symptoms.
Treat vertigo naturally
You can considerably reduce the light-headedness and discomfort before visiting the doctor for guidance, by staying away from bright lights and avoiding sudden loud sounds. Also, make sure that you stay still as much as possible and move in slow motions. If you are lying down and need to get up, turn to the side first, then get up slowly and wait until your body has regained balance. This will help with body balance and movement.