Vertigo can strike suddenly and knock you off your feet in a hurry. Dizziness and nausea are often the first symptoms of vertigo, but severe vertigo can jumble the world to such a degree that it’s challenging to make your way from your bed to the couch.
When most people think of vertigo, they may instinctively blame the disorder on the eyes or the brain. And that might feel like it makes sense: after all, it’s your eyes that can’t see straight and your brain that makes you want to throw up.
However, the real source of the problem is probably located not in your eyes but in your ears.
Your ears are essential for balance
Many people describe vertigo as a feeling akin to losing one’s balance. The world feels like it’s spinning even though the ground is solid. And the fault probably lies deep inside your ear–in an area unimaginatively (but accurately) called the inner ear. Within your inner ear, there are tiny canals that contain both fluid and tiny little hairs.
Your brain can determine your body’s orientation based on the position of the fluid within the canal. Usually, this system works really well, so you know which way is up and which way is down, no matter what direction your head is facing.
Until something goes wrong. When this system malfunctions or is disrupted, your brain can’t make sense of the signals. And that can cause vertigo.
What could be causing your vertigo?
If vertigo is being caused by your inner ear, there are a number likely culprits. Your physician or hearing specialist will likely check for one of these:
Middle ear fluid: A buildup of fluid in your middle ear can cause the whole system to go wonky and send confusing messages to your brain. This fluid buildup can occur for several reasons (such as an ear infection). If this is the cause of your vertigo, you may also find sounds to be muffled, as though you are underwater.
Middle ear crystals that have been dislodged: You have tiny calcium crystals in your middle ear that help detect movement. Sometimes when these crystals become displaced, they can find their way into the inner ear, where they can mess with your balance and cause both vertigo and nausea. If your vertigo comes and goes for seconds at a time or when you turn your head, it’s these crystals that are the likely culprit (a condition known as BPPV).
Meniere’s Disease: This disorder of the middle ear can impact both balance and hearing. Symptoms include vertigo (and related nausea), hearing loss, and possibly migraines. Meniere’s progresses over time, but your physician or hearing specialist may be able to recommend therapies that can help you cope with symptoms.
Vestibular Neuritis: When your vertigo is severe and constant, it’s likely you may be suffering from something called vestibular neuritis. This is an inflammation of the nerve in your inner ear. Most experts believe this inflammation is caused by something like a virus, so vestibular neuritis is usually a “self-limiting” condition. It may last for a few days or weeks and then go away.
These four conditions are not the only reasons why you might be suffering from vertigo or nausea. Nor are they the only middle-ear-related issues that can cause such symptoms. But they are common enough, and they give you an idea of how the middle ear can cause havoc with your sense of balance when something isn’t right.
What should you do?
So, what should you do if you’re feeling dizzy or have experienced bouts of vertigo? In most cases, you’ll want to make an appointment with a healthcare professional. If you suspect the problem is in your ears, you might want to talk to a hearing professional. However, usually, a physician will need to diagnose the underlying cause and prescribe some treatment.
That said, it’s probably a good idea to have someone else drive you to any medical appointments. The last thing you want to do is operate a motor vehicle when you have a bout of dizziness.
Hearing aids may help
In many ways, your inner ear is a marvel of the natural world. It’s so useful so much of the time. That makes it particularly noticeable when your inner ear stops working properly. It’s hard to ignore a bout of vertigo and nausea!
Any problems with your ears can indicate issues with your hearing. Talking to a hearing specialist can help keep your ears–outer, middle, and inner–in working order.
Remember: Some research indicates that hearing aids can improve your balance, though hearing aids are not a treatment for vertigo, they can help people orient themselves in space.