6 Causes of Vertigo

Vertigo is a medical condition exemplified by the sudden sensation of spinning or rocking. This type of dizziness can lead to nausea and difficulties walking, as the condition almost directly affects the body’s center of balance. Vertigo can also be self-inflicted, through spinning in place or holding one’s head upside down. However, for most, the sensation is sudden, unexpected, and often completely inexplicable.

So, what causes vertigo, exactly? There is no direct answer to this question, but understanding the different possible causes of this medical condition can help individuals take control of it–and thus their bodies–with more beneficial results. Some of these causes include migraines, inner ear infections, inflammation, head injuries, reactions to certain medications, and so on.

While vertigo by itself is not inherently dangerous or deadly, it can lead to complications (such as an unexpected fall) or it can be indicative of a greater medical issue. The first step to determining the cause of this condition is to understand the causes themselves. In the following article, a few of the more likely causes of vertigo are explained and analyzed in depth.

1. Migraines

Migraines are a more severe form of headache that are often recurrent and can leave an individual feeling helpless. When a migraine begins, the individual affected will likely find that they have suddenly become highly sensitive to noise, smells, lights—anything and everything that can possibly increase the ache. There is no known cause for migraines as they affect people in different ways. Possible causes include: chemical or neurological changes in the brain, environmental triggers (such as foods, lights, smells, etc.), and/or genetic predisposition. Hormonal imbalances or fluctuations can cause migraines in some people just as easily as a flickering, bright light can trigger them in others.

When migraines are connected to vertigo, it is called a vestibular migraine, or MAV. It is fairly common for individuals who suffer from migraines to experience episodes of mild to severe dizziness or other sensations that upset their natural balance. These two conditions do not necessarily have to occur at the same time; both have their own triggers and can strike separately or together depending on the situation and the person.

2. Inner Ear Infections

Inner ear infections are commonly linked with vertigo in large part because the inner ear is responsible for the body’s sense of balance. When it is compromised, vertigo is the result. There are a few different types of inner ear infections or disorders that exist, including:

Meniere’s Disease: Inner ear disorder that generally only affects one ear though, over time, the disorder may move into both ears. The disease manifests as a moderate to severe sensation of vertigo that can last a few minutes or a few hours. This disorder has no cure, and most treatments are not highly effective. Most medications are aimed at treating the associate nausea or anxiety that often comes with an episode.

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): Inner ear disorder that causes recurrent, yet brief, episodes of vertigo that are generally brought on by movement of the head. BPPV is a common cause of vertigo, and generally only lasts a few minutes at a time. Believed to be caused by the shifting of calcium crystals in the ear (known at otoliths) which, when the head moves, can affect the fluid flow and production of the inner ear which can cause sensations of dizziness and nausea.

3. Inflammation

A third type of inner ear infection, known as labyrinthitis, causes inflammation in the inner ear that can result in episodes of vertigo, hearing loss, or the sensation of ringing in the ears. The duration of the inflammation can vary greatly, lasting for only one episode or upwards of weeks with numerous episodes. Even when the inflammation has passed, it is possible for individuals to continue experiencing residual effects that can last for months.

What causes this inflammation is largely unknown, but viruses, upper respiratory infections, herpes, barometric pressure changes, high levels of stress, head injuries, and even allergies are a few possibilities. The inflammation itself attacks the labyrinthine structures of the inner ear, which is what gives the condition its name.

Similar to the aforementioned inner ear disorders, there is no known cure or treatment for labyrinthitis in the pharmaceutical realm. For the most part, the inflammation must be left to fade on its own. There are certain physical therapy related exercises that can be done to try and hasten this process, such as gaze stabilization and posture control, but nothing concrete in terms of active treatment.

4. Head Injury

Sudden, traumatic head injuries can cause a number of cognition problems, including vertigo. These types of injuries are commonly known as “post-traumatic vertigo,” and can develop in a number of ways. The onset of a head injury or concussion can disrupt the natural system of balance in the inner ear, which leads to dizziness and overall balance issues.

BPPV is a common result of head injuries, as the impact may have shifted the otoliths in the inner ear enough that they are now either loose and causing issues, or they have attached themselves to the ear drum or another improper area within the ear, which can cause dizziness and loss of balance. In rarer cases, a head injury can also cause an individual to develop Meniere’s Disease.

Head injuries do not always result in vertigo, though it is a common side effect. Anxiety, stress, and expectations after a traumatic crash or fall can cause a sense of dizziness or loss of balance that has little to nothing to do with the inner ear. However, it is more likely that head trauma will results in a temporary or prolonged episode of vertigo that, in some cases, may be permanent.

5. Medication

Certain prescription and over the counter medications have the ability to cause brief or prolonged episodes of vertigo in certain individuals.

Reactions to these medications and others most often relies on the individual and their particular tolerance (or lack thereof) to certain pharmaceuticals.

6. Vestibular Neuronitis

Vestibular neuronitis is an inner ear infection that causes inflammation on the vestibular nerve–the same nerve that controls balance. Episodes related to vestibular neuronitis are most often sudden and severe attacks of vertigo that leave individuals feeling nauseous or light-headed.

Another common symptom of vestibular neuronitis is nystagmus, or the sudden, uncontrollable movements of the eye that can last as long as the episode and sometimes longer.