This article is adapted from information provided by the National Institute on Deafness and Other
Communications Disorders, (NIDCD).
By The Vestibular Disorders Association with Dr. Jeremy Hinton
Millions of people have problems with balance they describe as “dizziness.” Experts believe that more than four out of ten Americans will experience an episode of dizziness significant enough to
send them to a doctor. Some, but not all, conditions that result in dizziness can be caused by problems with the inner ear and brain, also called the vestibular system.
What can be difficult for both a patient and his or her doctor is that the word “dizziness” can be used to describe different conditions, and people tend to use different terms to describe the same
kind of problem. “Dizziness,” “vertigo, and “disequilibrium” are often used interchangeably, even though they have different meanings.
Describing your symptoms accurately can mean the difference between a successful diagnosis and one that is missed.
- Dizziness is a sensation of lightheadedness, faintness, or unsteadiness.
- Vertigo is the perception of rotational movement or whirling—either of the
self or surrounding objects.
- Disequilibrium is the loss of equilibrium. It can be experienced as feeling off-balance or a sensation of spatial disorientation.
Almost everyone experiences a few seconds of dizziness or disequilibrium at some point — for example, when a person stands on a train platform and momentarily has an illusion of moving as
a train rushes past. However, for some people, symptoms can be intense and last a long time, affecting their independence, ability to work, and quality of life.
Balance disorders can be caused by medications or certain health conditions, including problems with the organs in the inner ear or the brain. Dizziness, vertigo, and disequilibrium are all symptoms that can result from a problem with any part of the vestibular system. There are two types of vestibular disorders:
• Peripheral vestibular disorders, which affect parts of the inner ear
• Central vestibular disorders, which affect parts of the brain that process balance and spatial information.
To help you decide whether you should seek medical help for a balance problem or dizzy spell, ask yourself the following questions. If you answer “yes” to any of
these questions, talk to your doctor. Do I feel like I…
- Am unsteady?
- May lose my balance and fall?
- Am falling?
- Can see the room spinning around me?
- Get dizzy when I lay down or turn over in bed?
- Am moving when I know I’m sitting or standing still?
- Get lightheaded, or as if I might faint?
- Have blurred vision?
- Get disoriented, such as losing my sense of time or where I am?
How can I help my Doctor make a Diagnosis?
You can help your doctor make a diagnosis and determine a treatment plan by filling in the information called for in the list below. You may want to jot down your responses to help you prepare for your appointment with your doctor.
- The best way I can describe my dizziness or balance problem is…
- How often do I feel dizzy or have trouble keeping my balance?
- Have I ever fallen? If so, when, where, how often, and under what conditions?
- These are the medicines I take…
- You may also want to fill out VEDA’s medical history questionnaire, found at vestibular.org/doctorvisit
Take Your Balance Seriously
Balance disorders may lead to other problems, including fatigue, difficulty walking, problems with memory and/or focus, depression, and social isolation. If you or your child, parent, friend, or coworker has a balance problem, take it seriously. Talk to your primary care doctor and be specific about what symptoms you have and when they occur. You may also want to ask for a referral to a vestibular specialist, which may be an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or a neurologist, depending on your symptoms. Further vestibular testing conducted by an audiologist, or
physical therapist is common.