Vertigo: a dizzying dilemma

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In the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo, actor Jimmy Stewart develops an extreme fear of heights and vertigo.

While a fear of heights (called acrophobia) is often confused with vertigo, the two are different. Acrophobia is an anxiety disorder, while vertigo is a symptom of many different conditions.

With vertigo, a person has a sudden feeling that he, or his environment, is spinning or moving. The feeling can come and go, or last for hours or days.

Along with dizziness, a person may experience nausea, vomiting, headaches, double vision, or a racing heartbeat. Feelings of unbalance may worsen when standing, walking, changing positions, or moving the head. Nearly 40 percent of Americans experience vertigo at least once during their lifetime, according to the Cleveland Clinic, though it is not considered to be a serious condition.

The most common causes of vertigo are inner ear infections or diseases of the ear, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Other factors that can lead to “vertigo attacks” include migraine headaches, head or brain injuries, and certain medications.

Vertigo has some distinct differences from fainting, lightheadedness, and motion sickness. For example, vertigo differs from motion sickness in that motion sickness is the feeling of being off-balanced following ongoing motion, such as a car ride. Vertigo, however, typically occurs without a direct cause to attribute its onset.

Vertigo can be diagnosed through a physical exam and medical tests. Treatments to successfully manage vertigo include the following:

  • Vestibular rehabilitation, an exercise-based program to improve balance and reduce dizziness-related problems
  • Canalith repositioning procedure, a series of slow-maneuver exercises for positioning the head to shift particles in the inner ear
  • Medications, such as antibiotics and steroids

The Horizon Health Rehabilitation Services Department offers a vertigo program. It includes an extensive evaluation to assess the various causes of dizziness or vertigo, followed by individualized treatment. For more information, call (217) 466-4244.