Balance requires the smooth functioning and combination of three bodily functions; vision, the ability to sense the body's position, and receptors in the inner ear.
That's why balance problems are so common. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), 40 percent of Americans will see a doctor because of dizziness at some point in their lives.
Despite its unsettling nature, dizziness simply goes away in most cases. However, dizziness can sometimes be a sign of serious health problems. It is important to take dizziness seriously, understand it, and speak to healthcare providers when needed.
Dizziness involves multiple sensations and two distinct conditions: lightheadedness and vertigo.
Lightheadedness means feeling faint, wobbly, woozy, unsteady, or off-balance. Sometimes individuals say they feel like they're floating.
Vertigo is more intense. Individuals say it feels like they or the room are spinning, even though nothing is moving. The Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA) define vertigo as "the perception of movement or whirling - either of the self or surrounding objects."
Nausea and an urgent need to sit down can accompany both lightheadedness and vertigo. Vision problems, such as difficulty focusing and following an object with the eyes, can be associated with vertigo. Sudden, loud noises may make vertigo worse.
Common causes of dizziness
Potential causes for dizziness range from mild dehydration to serious heart problems. When symptoms persist or are severe, seek medical help.
Dizziness has many potential causes and can be linked to more than one factor. As a result, diagnosing the root cause of dizziness can sometimes take a while.
There are many different causes of dizziness. Dizziness due to a drop in blood pressure is common among older adults.
Common causes of lightheadedness include:
- Feeling faint after standing or sitting up quickly, due to a drop in blood pressure. This cause is most common among older adults.
- Overheating. Activity in hot weather can cause dehydration or make people feel lightheaded. Some medications, such as diuretics, may make this condition worse.
- Low blood sugar levels. More common in individuals with diabetes, this condition can prompt unsteadiness, sweating, and anxiety.
- Medications. Lightheadedness is a side effect of many medications. These can include antidepressants, sedatives, tranquilizers, and drugs for high blood pressure and seizures.
- Anxiety. Feeling faint is a common symptom of panic attacks and anxiety-related disorders, such as agoraphobia.
- Neurological disorders. Diseases such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis may cause lightheadedness.
The most common cause of vertigo is a condition called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). BPPV develops when particles called otoconia get stuck in the semicircular canals of the inner ear. According to the Cleveland Clinic, most cases of BPPV improve on their own within 6 weeks, although treatment is often successful and faster.
Other common causes of vertigo include:
- Meniere's disease: This disease involves the buildup of fluid levels in the inner ear. The ear may feel blocked. It can be associated with hearing loss and ringing in the ears. Meniere's disease is most common in people in their 40s and 50s.
- Labyrinthitis: Caused by a viral infection. This condition can result in vertigo, plus sudden hearing loss.
- Migraine: Some migraines can be accompanied by vertigo, as well as sensitivity to light and noise.
Dizziness during certain situations
Lying down and pregnancy may readily give rise to dizziness.
Individuals who feel like their world is spinning when they lie down or turn their heads probably have BPPV. BPPV is an inner ear disturbance caused by loose particles and typically responds well to treatment.
Dizziness is fairly common during pregnancy, especially the first trimester. Hormonal changes alter the stretchiness of blood vessels. This increases blood flow to the uterus but may lower blood pressure and cause dizziness.
Low blood sugar, due to the different demands on a woman's body during pregnancy, can also cause dizziness. The weight of the baby pressing on blood vessels can have a similar effect.
Dizziness alongside other symptoms
When other symptoms accompany lightheadedness and vertigo, they may be clues to the cause of the dizziness. Noting the specific symptoms can help healthcare providers narrow down the potential root causes.
Doctors will pay particular interest to:
Pregnant women often experience dizziness.
- Vision problems
- Buzzing or ringing in the ears
- Chest pain
- Ear pain
- Speech problems
What to do if you suddenly feel dizzy
Individuals experiencing sudden dizziness can restore their sense of balance by:
- Laying or sitting down, with their head between their knees
- Loosening clothing
- Practicing deep and even breathing
- Drinking water
When to see a doctor
People should seek medical care quickly when the following symptoms are present with dizziness:
- Sudden, painful headache
- Garbled speech
- Changes in vision
- Changes in hearing
- Inability to walk
- Chest pain
- Irregular heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- High fever
- Stiff neck
- Head trauma
Treatments and home remedies for dizziness
Most often, dizziness goes away on its own. The following tips can help people reduce their symptoms, improve recovery, and reduce the likelihood of further dizziness:
Drinking plenty of water helps to reduce the risk of dizziness.
- Moving slowly if standing or sitting leads to light-headedness
- Limiting use of alcohol, salt, caffeine, and tobacco
- Resting in a cool place and rehydrating if dizziness is due to overheating and dehydration
- Staying well hydrated, especially in warm weather
- Avoiding reading or working on a computer when in a moving vehicle
- Improving balance through exercise
If dizziness is ongoing, people can make things easier by:
- Removing tripping hazards in the home, such as throw rugs
- Using non-slip mats
- Adding handrails where needed
- Avoiding driving and the use of heavy equipment
Dizziness from BPPV is relieved by a procedure called canalith repositioning, which can be performed in a doctor's office. The procedure involves moving otoconia particles to a different part of the ear.
The Mayo Clinic say that this procedure works in 80 percent of cases. Because it may need to be repeated, patients can learn how to do this procedure at home.
Viral infections of a nerve in the inner ear respond to an exercise-based therapy called vestibular rehabilitation. Anxiety can be treated by therapy.
Medications can also be helpful. For Meniere's disease, diuretics and a low-salt diet may cut down on dizziness. Anticholinergics, antihistamines, anti-nausea drugs, and anxiety drugs may also reduce symptoms, but require caution.
In the most severe cases, injections and surgery may be used to disable the balance function in a problem ear.
Are there any special considerations for particular groups?
Older adults and pregnant women have specific dizziness concerns. Falls and falling are the leading cause of accidental death and injury in people over 65, according to VEDA. This makes dizziness a significant health issue for older adults.
Older adults are more likely to take medications and have conditions that lead to dizziness. Additionally, all the systems that create balance are affected by age.
Self-care, fall-prevention plans, and a watchful eye are helpful healthcare strategies for older adults.
The following practices can help pregnant women cope with dizziness:
- Being careful when moving from a seated or prone position
- Maintaining steady blood sugar levels by eating frequent small meals
- Sleeping on one side after the middle of the second trimester to limit the pressure the uterus puts on blood vessels
- Avoiding tight clothing
Pregnant women should speak to a healthcare provider immediately if dizziness persists or is accompanied by stomach pain, vaginal bleeding, blurred vision, headaches, or a rapid, irregular heartbeat.