Vertigo is the feeling that you or your environment is moving or spinning. It differs from dizziness in that vertigo describes an illusion of movement. When you feel as if you yourself are moving, it's called subjective vertigo, and the perception that your surroundings are moving is called objective vertigo.
Unlike nonspecific lightheadedness or dizziness, vertigo has relatively few causes.
Vertigo can be caused by problems in the brain or the inner ear.
- Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is the most common form of vertigo and is characterized by the brief sensation of motion lasting 15 seconds to a few minutes. It may be initiated by sudden head movements or moving the head in a certain direction, such as rolling over in bed. This type of vertigo is rarely serious and can be treated.
- Vertigo may also be caused by inflammation within the inner ear (labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis), which is characterized by the sudden onset of vertigo and may be associated with hearing loss. The most common cause of labyrinthitis is a viral or bacterial inner ear infection. The duration of symptoms can last for days until the inflammation subsides.
- Meniere's disease is composed of a triad of symptoms including episodes of vertigo, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), and hearing loss. People with this condition have the abrupt onset of severe vertigo and fluctuating hearing loss as well as periods in which they are symptom-free.
- Acoustic neuroma is an uncommon cause of vertigo related to a type of tumor of the nerve tissue of the inner ear that can cause vertigo. Symptoms may include vertigo with one-sided ringing in the ear and hearing loss.
- Vertigo can be caused by decreased blood flow to the base of the brain. Bleeding into the back of the brain (cerebellar hemorrhage) is characterized by vertigo, headache, difficulty walking, and inability to look toward the side of the bleed. The result is that the person's eyes gaze away from the side with the problem. Walking is also extremely impaired.
- Vertigo is often the presenting symptom in multiple sclerosis. The onset is usually abrupt, and examination of the eyes may reveal the inability of the eyes to move past the midline toward the nose.
- Head trauma and neck injury may also result in vertigo, which usually goes away on its own. Cervical vertigo can be caused by neck problems such as impingement of blood vessels or nerves from neck injuries.
- Migraine, a severe form of headache, may also cause vertigo. The vertigo is usually followed by a headache, although not always. There is often a prior history of similar episodes but no lasting problems.
- Complications from diabetes can cause arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) which can lead to lowered blood flow to the brain, causing vertigo symptoms.
Picture of the ear and internal ear structures.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/2/2015
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