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Definition | Causes | Risk Factors | Symptoms | Diagnosis | Treatment | Prevention


Vertigo is a feeling of spinning or whirling when you are not moving. It can also be an exaggerated feeling of motion when your body is still. Vertigo is a symptom that can be caused by many different conditions. Vertigo is different from passing dizziness or lightheadedness.


Inner ear nerves and structures sense the position of your head and body in space. Vertigo is often caused by problems with these nerves and structures. Less commonly, it is due to problems in the brain.

Vertigo can be classified as:

Vertigo of peripheral origin is caused by problems of the inner ear. It is the most common type of vertigo. Causes may include:

Vertigo of central origin is not as common as vertigo of peripheral origin, but it is more serious. This type of vertigo is affects the brainstem or the cerebellum, the region of the brain that controls balance. Causes may include:

  • Brain lesion or tumors
  • Stroke
  • Migraine headaches
  • Nervous system disorders such as Parkinson's disease, or multiple sclerosis
  • Epilepsy
  • Excessive exposure to alcohol, heavy industrial metals, or poisons
  • Injury

Risk Factors

Vertigo is a symptom that may be caused by many conditions. Having any of the conditions will make your more prone to having vertigo.


Common vertigo symptoms include:

  • Sensation of rotation
  • Illusion of movement
  • Sensation of feeling pulled in one direction
  • Feeling off-balance

Vertigo is different then lightheadedness. With lightheadedness, there is no sensation of movement. People often feel lightheaded before they faint.


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. To find the cause of your vertigo, your doctor may recommend tests. Tests may include:

  • Dix-Hallpike maneuver—particular movement of the head to relieve or stimulate symptoms
  • Auditory tests
  • Blood pressure test, both lying down and standing up
  • Electronystagmogram (ENG)—to check for nystagmus, an abnormal, rhythmic, jerking eye movement
  • MRI
  • Rotatory chair test in certain situations
  • Brainstem auditory evoked potential studies (BAEPS or BAERs)—to check for nerve conduction in the brain auditory nerve and brain stem


Vertigo is a symptom of another medical condition. Treatment will focus managing the underlying medical condition. Efforts may also be used to decrease the symptoms of vertigo.These may include one or more of the following:

  • Antihistimines
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Anticholinergics
  • Anti-nausea medicines

Living with vertigo can be challenging, but not impossible. Try these tips:

If you are in a crowded, open space or out in public:

  • Use a cane to help with balance and mobility
  • Sit at one end of the sports field or theater to avoid moving your head back and forth
  • Bring a stool or chair so you can sit down when you need to
  • Schedule what your day around peak times when places are crowded

Other tips:

  • Don't read or work on a computer if you are moving
  • Don't fly if you have sinus or ear problems due to an infection
  • Avoid loud background music and harsh lighting
  • Try to eat smaller meals throughout the day
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine

You and your doctor will plan lifestyle changes. These may that may help include:

If you are out in public:

  • Use a cane to help with balance and mobility
  • Sit at one end of the sports field or theater to avoid moving your head back and forth
  • Bring a stool or chair so you can sit down when you need to

Other tips:

  • Don't read or work on a computer if you are moving
  • Avoid loud background music and harsh lighting


There is no known way to prevent vertigo.


American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery


Vestibular Disorders Association



Balance and Dizziness Disorders Society


Canadian Academy of Audiology



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Dizziness-differential diagnosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated December 16, 2011. Accessed April 25, 2013.

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Strategies for everyday living. Vestibular Disorders Association website. Available at: http://vestibular.org/living-vestibular-disorder/everyday-challenges. Accessed April 25, 2013.

7/2/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php: Oh HJ, Kim JS, Han BI, Lim JG. Predicting a successful treatment in posterior canal benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Neurology. 2007;68:1219-1222.

Last reviewed April 2013 by Rimas Lukas, MD; Brian Randall, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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