What is vertigo and why do we get it?

No, it's not caused by a fear of heights...

What Is Vertigo and Why Do We Get It?

Many people experience the dizzying effects of vertigo at some point in their lives - and not because they're afraid of heights. Here's why it happens and what you can do...

See also: Causes of tinnitus and what you can do

Vertigo is a subjective sensation that you, or the world around you, is moving or spinning. The feeling may be subtle and last a few moments or the dizziness may continue for several weeks and be severe enough to stop you from keeping your balance and make leading a normal life very difficult.

Two types of vertigo: central and peripheral

Central vertigo is a neurological problem, usually in the brain stem or cerebellum, which can be caused by things like Multiple sclerosis (MS), stroke, and tumours. The vast majority of patients who experience vertigo (93%) have peripheral vertigo, which is usually caused by a problem with the balance mechanisms of the inner ear.

There are several things which can cause peripheral vertigo, including infections, head injuries, migraine, Ménière's disease (thought to be caused by too much liquid in the ear), and taking certain types of medication.

One of the most common types is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), which can occur during specific head movements, while standing up or bending over.

Most people who experience BPPV have brief but intense attacks of dizziness that generally last for a few moments to a few minutes. You may feel sick, though vomiting is rare, and may also notice your eyes involuntarily moving from side to side. Lightheadedness and a loss of balance can continue for several hours after the attack.

BPPV is believed to be caused by small fragments of debris (calcium carbonate crystals), which break off from the lining of the channels in your inner ear. The fragments don't usually cause a problem, unless they get into one of the ear's fluid-filled canals.

Certain head movements can cause the crystals to move along the fluid-filled canal, which sends confusing messages to your brain, resulting in vertigo.

It's more common in older people, with most cases occurring in people aged over 50, and can be caused by an ear infection, ear surgery, a head injury or prolonged bed rest. Sometimes there is no obvious trigger.

If you suffer with vertigo, see your GP. Treatment options depend on the cause and severity of your symptoms, and may include medication, special head-turning exercises and in some cases, surgery.

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