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Guide Health: Dealing with dizziness and vertigo

Knowing what causes dizziness is the first step in preventing it

Dizziness involves a group of symptoms. There can be lightheadedness, a sensation of spinning, and even fainting. You have probably felt these sensations. None of them are pleasant!

Vertigo is a more technical term. It refers to a feeling of motion when there is none, or an exaggerated sensation of motion in response to movement.

Nausea and vomiting can accompany both dizziness and vertigo.

About 1.5 million Canadians have been affected by dizziness or vertigo, but the sensation is difficult to diagnose in that it is very subjective.

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To understand dizziness and vertigo, you need to know how your body senses its balance. The vestibular system is found in the inner ear and contains otoliths. These are like grains of sand.

When you move, the otoliths move too, and it is this movement that sends messages from the vestibular system to your brain about your orientation in space and motion.

Along with your vestibular system, your eyes, muscles, and even touch sensation provide input for your brain, which interprets the information in these signals.

As you can imagine, if even one set of these signals is compromised, you may experience dizziness and/or vertigo.

If you suffer dizziness, you obviously want to rule out any conditions that may be causing it. Problems with the vestibular system or the nerves that transmit information to your brain may be implicated. Some medical conditions like heart beat irregularities, anemia, diabetes, migraine, or even a head injury can cause dizziness, so treating such underlying conditions may help the dizziness.

Many drugs have dizziness as a side effect because they affect the nervous system. These include, for example, alcohol, antidepressants, antipsychotics, narcotic pain relievers and anti-seizure medications.

Also, if a drug affects the cardiovascular system, dizziness may result, for example beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, diuretics or water pills. Changing to another drug or a different dose may reduce the adverse effects.

Benign paroxysmal positioning vertigo accounts for about 20 per cent of vertigo cases. A physical manipulation of the head known as the Epley manoeuvre is able to move the otolith particles back where they belong and alleviate symptoms.

Meniere’s disease is the second most common type of vertigo. It is not well understood but dietary salt restriction and diuretics or water pills sometimes help. Betahistine is commonly used to “stabilize” the inner ear, but its benefit varies greatly from person to person.

The dizziness you experience when in a car or plane is the result of contradictory messages from your vestibular system and the rest of your body. If you are bothered by motion sickness, prevention is preferred. Sit where there is the least movement in the car: the front seat. When flying, sit over the plane’s wings. Look at a fixed point in the distance, not at something closer to you which may move, and don’t try to read.

Dimenhydrinate suppresses the vestibular system and this will reduce symptoms, but remember to take it prior to getting into the car or on a plane and watch for drowsiness.

Regardless of whether its dizziness or vertigo that you experience, don’t undertake any tasks that require alertness and precision because you may not be able to perform the task, especially if it is driving a car, or taking care of a child.

And, don’t just ignore ongoing dizziness or vertigo. Get it checked.

About the author


Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.



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