What is vertigo?
Vertigo is an umbrella term for the sensation that you or your environment are moving. It’s a symptom, not a condition. It usually feels like things are spinning horizontally, but it can also be vertical.
It is usually seen with other symptoms, like nausea, vomiting, loss of balance and sweating. It can range from being barely noticeable to affecting a person’s quality of life.
Some people may vomit or experience loss of hearing or a ringing sensation.
What are the symptoms of vertigo?
Feeling like you’re spinning
Ringing sound in the ears
What causes vertigo?
There are many different causes of vertigo. Common conditions include:
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
BPPV is one of the most common causes of vertigo. It's estimated that it affects about 50% of people throughout their life. In the inner ear, there are calcium crystals that help you keep your balance.
If a crystal is detached, for example when turning your head suddenly or sitting up in bed, it can send your brain the wrong signals. This can give you vertigo symptoms lasting seconds to minutes.
This is a long-term disease but scientists do not know what causes it. It can cause hearing loss, a ringing or buzzing sound heard in the ears (called tinnitus), a feeling of fullness in the ear and vertigo. It usually lasts a few hours and then gets better.
This usually happens after you’ve had a viral infection and it is caused by inflammation of the part of the ear called the labyrinth (which controls balance). It can cause vertigo, nausea, vomiting, and hearing loss.
This usually happens after a viral infection and is linked to repeated episodes of vertigo which can last anywhere from hours to days. It's caused by inflammation of a nerve in the ear.
This is associated with migraine symptoms like blurred vision, flashing lights, sensitivity to light or sound, headache and symptoms of vertigo.
How common is vertigo?
Vertigo is thought to affect between 3-10% of the population, with the most common cause being BPPV.
How is vertigo diagnosed?
Vertigo is a symptom, not a condition, but a doctor can diagnose the cause.
Sometimes a diagnosis can be based on symptoms alone.
Other times a doctor may do a physical exam to check movement in your eyes called the Dix-Hallpike manoeuvre. In some cases, a GP might refer you to an ENT specialist for more testing.
How is vertigo treated?
Most causes of vertigo get better on their own, but there are specific treatments for some of the underlying causes.
BPPV can be treated by a series of head movements known as the Epley manoeuvre.
Other causes of vertigo can generally be treated with medication such as prochlorperazine or antihistamines.
There are also some things you can do at home to help relieve your symptoms.
Lie down in a darkened room to reduce the sensation of spinning
Sleep with your head slightly raised up by pillows
Get out of bed slowly and sit on the edge of the bed before standing up
Sit down when you feel dizzy
Move your head slowly
Avoid stretching your neck or bending down
When should I speak to a doctor?
If you’re struggling with the symptoms of vertigo or they keep coming back, speak to a GP.
- Reviewed by:
- Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi