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Dizziness is a difficult thing to describe. When a patient is feeling dizzy, there can be a variety of terms used to describe exactly what they are feeling. Some feel light headed, some feel unstable, some feeling rocking and some feel spinning. Some patients describe their sensation as vertigo- but what is vertigo exactly? Vertigo is actually a very specific medical term that is often misused or misunderstood.

What is vertigo?

The definition of vertigo is the sensation of movement where there is none. Classically, most people experience a spinning sensation- either of their own head, or of the room around them. Think about the sensation you used to feel after spinning around in a circle as a child. That feeling of the room moving around you, even after you’ve stopped, is the sensation of vertigo. Some people might experience a swaying or rocking sensation instead of or as well as spinning. True vertigo is not a light headed feeling or a feeling of unsteadiness- although these can sometimes go hand in hand. It is also not a fear of heights, as is commonly believed.

Who diagnoses it?

This is actually a trick question. Often patients tell us that they have been diagnosed with vertigo, but in fact this is impossible. Vertigo is not a diagnosis, but a symptom of a balance-related problem, usually a problem in the inner ear but sometimes an issue in a nerve pathway or the brain. If someone is experiencing true vertigo, there should be a reason for it and should be explored further.

What causes it?

Vertigo can be caused by a number of factors. It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection, certain illnesses, certain types of medication, or physical, structural issues in the inner ear, vestibulocochlear nerve, or brain, to name just a few. There is a large test battery to try and evaluate the cause of this symptom, usually performed by a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals. Some conditions can only be diagnosed after excluding all other possibilities.

How do you treat it?

As mentioned above, vertigo is a symptom and not a diagnosis. For this reason, it’s important to try and identify the cause in order to treat appropriately. A variety of tests may be required to identify or rule out possible causes. If it is very severe, your doctor may give you something to help you feel better while looking for the cause. Once the cause is identified, you health care team will be able to discuss treatment options with you, which may include medication, positioning techniques, balance exercises and rehabilitation, or surgery.

If you are looking for assistance with vertigo or balance-related issues, it’s best to see an Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist first. You can find a list of registered ENTs here. If you have any questions, please contact us or comment below.