Dizziness: When to See a Doctor

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Dizziness, lightheadedness, and vertigo are not uncommon symptoms, especially in older adults. Practically any adult will experience spells of dizziness at some point, and roughly 40% of adults over 40 will report symptoms of vertigo in their lifetime. While vertigo and dizziness are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to point out that vertigo is more extreme and can feel like the inside of your head, or even the objects and room around you, are spinning.

Dizzy Spells

Dizzy spells of any kind become more dangerous as you get older since spinning sensations can easily lead to dangerous falls and fractured bones. In general, it’s recommended to see a doctor if you experience persistent dizziness or if you experience it along with any of the following symptoms: migraines, confusion, nausea, difficulty standing, vision problems, or weakness. Dizzy spells may be relatively harmless, or they may be indicative of underlying serious health problems.

Head Injuries

It’s not uncommon for issues like lightheadedness, dizziness, or balance problems to occur after a concussion or other traumatic brain injury. Brainstem injuries can easily cause problems with imbalance, and it’s always possible for the middle and inner ear to be damaged following a head injury. If you suspect an injury has caused your symptoms, you should see a doctor immediately.

Audiologists perform a variety of dizziness testing techniques to get to the source of disorientation, vertigo, or similar symptoms. Videonystagmography (VNG) is frequently used to test the vestibular system. In these tests, patients wear goggles with cameras that record their eye movements during tasks, and a caloric test is done on each ear to determine the strength of the inner ear systems. Other possible tests for dizziness include a rotational chair test or other balance tests that simulate inner ear changes while the patient’s eyes are monitored. Once a cause is determined, it’s much easier to move forward with effective treatment.

Inner Ear Disorders

Your inner ear plays a major role in monitoring the rotation of your head. The vestibular system, also called the vestibular labyrinth, contains three looping structures that contain fluid and hairlike sensors that contribute to your overall sense of balance and spatial orientation. Damage to the vestibular labyrinth from injury, disease, or aging can lead to serious issues with balance.

Vestibular neuritis is a condition caused by a viral infection that affects the nerve that sends signals from your inner ear to your brain. A bacterial infection can also lead to labyrinthitis, which causes the vestibular labyrinth to become inflamed. This can lead to serious pain and pressure in the ear, as well as nausea, balance problems, and high fever. Both of these conditions can typically be cured with medication, although vestibular rehabilitation may be necessary if severe damage was done.

Meniere’s disease can also cause bouts of dizziness or vertigo, though this issue can also be paired with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and hearing loss. This disease is often caused by fluid failing to drain properly from the inner ear or by abnormal immune responses. It’s considered a chronic medical condition, and while there is no “cure,” medications and rehabilitative procedures can help lessen its impact.

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV)

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is the most common form of vertigo and is typically brought on by changes in your head’s position. If you frequently experience dizzy spells after getting up from a resting position or when moving your head quickly, this may well be the cause of your dizziness. BPPV can come and go suddenly, and you may go long periods of time between episodes. It generally isn’t serious beyond the higher risk of falling it creates. There is often no known cause for the condition, but it sometimes may be brought on by inner ear disturbances.

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