THE term dizziness describes everything from feeling light-headed or faint to a feeling of weakness or unsteadiness. When it creates a sensation that your surroundings are spinning or moving it is called vertigo. Dizziness is a very common symptom, but fortunately it rarely signals a serious problem.
The way dizziness makes you feel provides clues for possible causes. Specific triggers, such as certain activities or positions may also give clues as to the underlying cause of your dizziness.
The duration of any dizziness episodes and any additional symptoms you feel can also help pinpoint the exact cause.
Vertigo usually results from a sudden or temporary change in the activity of the balance structures in your inner ear (vestibular system) or in the balance structures’ connections into the brain.
Sometimes vertigo is severe enough to cause nausea, vomiting and balance problems.
The commonest cause of vertigo is something called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo which causes intense, brief episodes of vertigo immediately following a change in the position of your head.
Rarely vertigo can be a symptom of more serious neurological problems like a stroke.
Causes of this type of dizziness include:
- Drop in blood pressure. A dramatic drop in your blood pressure may result in light-headedness or a feeling of faintness. It can occur after sitting up or standing too quickly.
- Inadequate output of blood from the heart. Certain conditions such as any of the various diseases of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) or a decrease in blood volume may cause inadequate blood flow from your heart.
Various other sensations associated with dizziness may be caused by:
- Inner ear disorders. Some inner ear abnormalities can cause persistent, non-vertigo-type dizziness.
- Anxiety disorders. Certain anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks and a fear of leaving home or being in large, open spaces (agoraphobia), may cause dizziness.
- Low iron levels (anaemia). Other signs and symptoms that may occur along with dizziness if you have anaemia include fatigue, weakness and pale skin.
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia). This condition generally occurs in people with diabetes who use insulin. Dizziness may be accompanied by sweating and confusion.
- Ear infections. Sometimes, ear infections can cause dizziness. This type of dizziness will go away when the infection clears up.
- Overheating and dehydration. If you are active in hot weather, or if you don’t drink enough fluids, you may feel dizzy from overheating (hyperthermia) or from dehydration. Resting in a cool place and drinking water or a sports drink will usually help ease the dizzy feeling.
- Chronic subjective dizziness. This is a specific clinical syndrome characterised by persistent non-specific dizziness that doesn’t have an obvious medical cause. Chronic subjective dizziness is associated with hypersensitivity to one’s own motion
Factors that may increase your risk of getting dizzy include:
- Age. People older than 65 years old are more likely to have medical conditions that cause dizziness. They’re also more likely to take medications that can cause dizziness.
- Taking certain medications. Some medications, such as blood pressure lowering drugs, anti-seizure medications, sedatives and tranquillisers can cause dizziness.
- A past episode of dizziness. If you have experienced dizziness before, you are more likely to get dizzy in the future.
To pinpoint what’s causing your symptoms, your doctor will consider your medical history and do a physical examination as well as some blood tests and imaging techniques.
Even if no cause is found or if your dizziness persists, prescription drugs and other treatments may make your symptoms more manageable.
The following might be useful if you experience dizziness:
- Be aware that dizziness may make you lose your balance, which can lead to falling and serious injury.
- Avoid moving suddenly.
- Stand up slowly.
- Fall-proof your home by removing tripping hazards such as area rugs and exposed electrical cords. Use non-slip mats on your bath and shower floors.
- Avoid driving a car or operating heavy machinery if you experience frequent dizziness.
- Use good lighting on stairs and where you walk if you get out of bed at night.
- Walk with a cane for stability, if necessary.
- Avoid using caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. Excessive use of these substances can worsen your signs and symptoms.
If you are having trouble with dizziness, please visit your doctor.