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Always consult with a healthcare professional to get a confirmed diagnosis and appropriate treatment, but in the meantime you can use our guide to figure out why you feel dizziness and what you can do about it.
Here's the first step:
Dizziness refers to a range of different sensations and experiences, so describing your particular experience is the first step to identifying its cause.
Would you describe your dizziness as a feeling of light-headedness?
Do you feel like you might faint?
Or is it more a vague sense of feeling “spaced-out”?
Do you feel unsteady on your feet, like you couldn't walk in a straight line?
Do you feel like you're spinning in place?
Or do you feel like you're standing still but the world is spinning around you?
All of these sensations can be labeled as dizziness, and they all have very different causes – and very different solutions.
Sometimes the key to unlocking why you feel dizzy is found in what else is going on at the same time. Note any of these symptoms that you have experienced before, after, or during episodes of dizziness:
There is an area of the inner ear called the vestibular labyrinth. This labyrinth contains a series of canals that are filled with fluid. A large nerve and an area within the brain are also part of the vestibular network.
Together, this team controls your perception of motion, balance, and proximity to other objects in space.
Whenever you move your head, experience inertia from gravity (like sitting up suddenly, or riding a rollercoaster), or feel vibrations from the ground, the vestibular labyrinth detects the movement and sends a signal via the nerve to the brain. Any motion within the fluid of the vestibular labyrinth is communicated by the vestibular nerve and interpreted by the brain as movement.
When something goes wrong with any part of the vestibular network, it causes a sensation of vertigo.
Vertigo is a term that is often used interchangeably with “dizziness”, but it specifically refers to a sense of motion even when you're staying still or a sense that the environment is moving around you.
It can be accompanied by other types of dizzy feelings like light-headedness.
FACT: The feeling of dizziness that can occur when looking down from a height is called acrophobia, not vertigo!
Vertigo can be caused by a number of conditions in the vestibular network. Problems with the inner ear account for up to half of the cases of dizziness, and all of them are treatable. Here's a quick overview of the most common vestibular conditions:
Most common cause of vestibular vertigo
Short episodes of vertigo when you move your head
Try saying “benign paroxysmal position vertigo” three times fast! Benign paroxysmal position vertigo or BPPV occurs when natural crystals within the inner ear shift around due to head movement. These episodes of vertigo last from seconds to minutes, and are sometimes accompanied by vomiting.
BPPV can be caused by infections, injury to the ear, prolonged bed rest or as an after-effect of other vestibular disorders. However, it can also occur spontaneously from the natural degeneration of tissue in the inner ear in older age.
Uncontrollable eye movements
As you might guess from the name, labyrinthitis affects the vestibular labyrinth. When an ear infection spreads to this area of the inner ear, it causes vertigo and sometimes rapid, uncontrollable eye movements.
Additional symptoms can include fever, hearing loss, tinnitus and ear pain.
Sudden attacks of vertigo that last 1 – 6 hours
Pressure in the ear
Menier's disease causes attacks of vertigo dizziness that occur suddenly and usually last between 1 - 6 hours.
There is often pressure in the ear before and during the attack, along with tinnitus, severe nausea and vomiting, and progressive hearing loss that doesn't return even after the vertigo is over. No one is sure why it occurs, and it can appear out of nowhere!
Vertigo with no hearing loss or tinnitus
Uncontrollable eye movement towards affected ear
In case of Labyrinthitis, there's a change in hearing. You can learn about it here.
While labyrinthitis involves inflammation of the inner ear, vestibular neuritis is inflammation of the nerve that runs from the ear to the brain. This causes vertigo, but no hearing loss or tinnitus. A signature sign of vestibular neuritis is spontaneous eye movement towards the affected ear, but it doesn't happen in every case.
It is most likely caused by a viral infection of the nerve that resolves after 7 – 10 days.
The brain requires lots of oxygen and glucose which are usually delivered in huge amounts by the blood. Anything that stops the regular delivery of O2 or blood sugar can cause a feeling of dizziness without vertigo. These conditions can cause light-headedness, fainting, and feeling “spaced-out”.
Learn more about how these common conditions can cause dizziness:
Medications and recreational drugs can cause many types of dizziness as a side-effect or interaction. Check with your physician or pharmacist if you are dizzy after taking any drugs – it could be an early warning sign of a dangerous reaction or just a common side-effect.
Herpes zoster virus and syphilis infections can cause ongoing dizziness, as can disruption to thyroid hormones, reproductive hormones, or adrenal hormones. This includes hypothyroid conditions, chronic stress, and pregnancy!
Dizziness can present as a symptom of many common psychological disorders including anxiety disorders, depression, panic disorders, and hyperventilation conditions.
Although they are rare, tumors, hemorrhages and trauma within the brain can cause dizziness.
It's essential to get a clear diagnosis of why you're dizzy before you begin treatments, including many at-home natural remedies. Self-diagnosis can completely miss the mark, and using the wrong treatments can make things worse! See a physician as soon as possible.
Call your doctor or go to the Emergency room immediately if any of these red flags are present:
James Lyons is a clinical nutritionist with special interest in vestibular disorders, endocrine conditions, and LGBT health. He is passionate about health education and patient autonomy, and he supports resources that empower everyone to make informed decisions about their health. James lives in the eastern beaches area of Sydney, Australia and works globally.