What is Vertigo? Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, & prevention

People with Vertigo have a sensation of dizziness, spinning, or loss of balance. It is quite a common condition. We often mistakenly use this term when talking about a fear of heights. If you have vertigo, you have a false sense of spinning or motion which is uncomfortable and disorienting.

You may have this sensation when you are sitting on a chair, sitting on the ground, standing on the ground, or standing/sitting high up on something. In other words, people with vertigo experience a loss of balance regardless of where they are.

According to ucsfhealth.org:

“Nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults experience vertigo at least once in their lifetime, with women slightly more likely to get it than men.”

Vertigo vs. fear of heights

As mentioned above, we commonly use the term when referring to a fear of heights. However, vertigo is much more than that. Acrophobia is the term we should use for fear of heights.

We probably use vertigo incorrectly in this way because of the sensation of dizziness, spinning, and loss of balance we have when looking down from a very high place.

Nicholas Eynon-Lewis, a Consultant ENT Surgeon in London, UK, explains:

“Vertigo is more than just a fear of heights. In fact, a fear of heights is called acrophobia. This is often confused with vertigo, possibly because of the spinning sensation felt when looking down from a high place, but true vertigo is much more than this.”

Causes of vertigo

Experts say that there are several possible causes of vertigo. Here are the main ones:

  • BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo)

Very small calcium particles in the inner ear undermine the balance signals to the brain, leading to dizziness, loss of balance, etc.

  • Meniere’s disease

An accumulation of fluid in the inner ear causes vertigo-like symptoms. Patients may also experience hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ear).

  • Vestibular neuritis

Inflammation of the vestibular nerve. This nerve helps control balance. Our sense of movement and balance is known as our vestibular sense.

  • Labyrinthitis

An inner ear infection. This may be caused by a cold or flu virus.


Image created by medicalvocab.com.

Signs and symptoms

A sign is something both the doctor and patient can detect, such as a red eye or skin rash. A symptom can only be sensed or detected by the patients. A headache, for example, is a symptom. Your doctor, family members, or other people won’t know about your headache unless you tell them.

Patients with vertigo typically experience the following signs and symptoms:

  • A sensation of spinning, falling, and moving when the patient is actually still.
  • Difficulty maintaining balance.
  • Difficulty walking (ataxic gait).
  • Feeling faint.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Nausea.
  • Tinnitus.
  • Vomiting.

If your vertigo is due to problems in the brain (central vertigo), these symptoms are also possible:

  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Double vision.
  • Eye movement problems.
  • Facial paralysis.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Weak limbs.

Diagnosis of vertigo

Your doctor will typically perform a physical examination, check your medical history, discuss your signs and symptoms, ask which medications you are currently taking, and may order the following tests:

  • Imaging tests

MRI or CT scans may help rule out any underlying neurological problems.

  • Head movement tests

The Epley maneuver or Dix-Hallpike maneuver can help identify BPPV.

  • Hearing tests

These may help identify any problems associated with Meniere’s disease.


The main focus of vertigo treatment is to address its underlying cause. Here are some of the most common treatments:

  • Medications

Your doctor may prescribe drugs for the management of vertigo, nausea, and anxiety symptoms.

  • Vestibular rehabilitation (reducing/eliminating balance problems)

There are specific exercises that can help improve your brain’s ability to adapt to changes in the inner ear.

  • Canalith repositioning maneuvers

The Epley maneuver may help relocate calcium particles in BBPV.

According to the Cleveland Clinic:

“The Epley maneuver — also known as the canalith repositioning procedure (CRP) — is a method to remove these crystals trapped in your ear’s semicircular canal.”

Complications of vertigo

While vertigo in itself may not be life-threatening, it can be the cause of complications:

  • Quality of life affected

People who experience chronic dizziness, spinning, and loss of balance much of the time may find it hard to perform daily tasks and take part in social activities. In some cases, their job options may be significantly limited.

  • Falls, injuries, and accidents

If you get dizzy while walking, cooking, running, standing in the shower, crossing a busy street, or operating heavy machinery, the consequences are potentially dangerous.


While preventing vertigo may not always be possible, there are some things we can do to reduce the risk:

  • Avoid triggers

Certain movements or substances may help trigger your vertigo. If you know what these triggers are, avoid them.

  • Remain hydrated

Have plenty to drink, especially water, which can help maintain the balance of fluids in the inner ear.

  • Stress management

Managing stress and anxiety may help prevent your symptoms from getting worse. Try to find an effective stress management technique. If you are not sure how to do this, as your doctor to recommend somebody or somewhere.

If you are experiencing some of the signs and symptoms described in this article, consult a healthcare professional.