Many people will suffer an episode of mild vertigo in their lives: a moment of dizziness or disorientation that passes in a few minutes. In most cases, this is nothing to worry about. For some, however, this condition can be ongoing, inconvenient, and even dangerous. Vertigo, and its many forms, is not life-threatening by itself, but can create difficulties with mobility and daily life.
One common type of vertigo is referred to as Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, or BPPV. It is a mechanical problem with the inner ear. The problem occurs when calcium carbonate crystals (also known as otoconia) make their way into the inner ear canals. The fluid and the cilia in these canals normally act as “sensors” that alert our brain to movement.
While the fluid of the inner ear canals does not respond to gravity, the dislodged crystals do. When the flow of fluid in the inner ear is disrupted, the brain misinterprets this as movement. If the other inner ear is functioning normally, the brain sends confusing signals to the sufferer, causing dizziness and disorientation.
BPPV most commonly manifests during normal head movement. Individuals may notice a sudden feeling of dizziness when standing quickly, lying down, making a sudden turn, and/or rolling over in bed. A feeling of “spinning” will likely occur, sometimes accompanied by nausea or vomiting. Trouble walking or standing may also accompany these symptoms.
In mild cases, it is possible that dizziness provides significant difficulty; but severe BPPV often has a major impact on movement and quality of life. For older individuals suffering from BPPV, an increased risk of falls may be cause for concern.
If you experience double vision, hearing loss, fever, trouble speaking, numbness or tingling along with your dizziness, this may be a sign of a more serious illness, and you should seek medical attention.
Doctors know BPPV is caused by the dislodging of calcium carbonate crystals in the inner ear. Oftentimes, the underlying cause of this dislodging is not known. BPPV can occur with inner ear infections, ear surgery, head trauma, migraines, or even normal aging. BPPV occurs in both sexes, although it is slightly more common in women.
If you are suffering from continual dizziness and vertigo, the best course of action is to make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your medical history. Your physician may refer you to an audiologist, who will perform a test to determine if you have BPPV. The most common test for BPPV involves tracking the eye movements of the patient in certain positions to look for nystagmus, or abnormal rhythmic eye movement. This can often be an indicator of BPPV.
BPPV is a common ailment, afflicting approximately 100 per 100,000 people. Fortunately, treatment is readily available. One possible treatment is a procedure called the “Epley maneuver”, which replaces the dislodged crystals. This often alleviates the problem, but there are other treatments worth discussing with your audiologist. While 15 percent of patients undergoing this procedure experience the symptoms again, your audiologist will have instructions on how to respond if you feel dizzy again.
If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of vertigo for a week or more, there’s no reason to keep dealing with them on your own.