Health Extra: Don’t Panic When Vertigo Suddenly Hits

The most common cause of dizziness is not as scary as you think


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It was a normal day. I woke up to the sound of my alarm, reached an arm over to switch screeching off, swung my legs over the edge of my bed, and stood up. Instead of stretching, the room spun, the floor seemed to shift, and I tumbled into my desk. Thankfully, the episode only lasted 20 seconds (and the only witness was my 1-year-old dog) but the embarrassment and panic were induced anyway.

What was wrong with me?

This continued throughout the day. I would get random spells of dizziness if I moved my head too much or leaned over. Each time the feeling only lasted for 30-40 seconds, but it felt like an eternity when the world around me was spinning and rocking.

I would eventually learn that it was benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), and there was nothing that could have warned me before it struck.

“It’s just something that can happen,” says Dr. Robert Stachler, an ENT-Otolaryngologist based in West Bloomfield Township.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation defines BPPV as the most common inner ear problem and cause of vertigo, a false sense of spinning.  The condition is not life-threatening, comes on sudden, and is triggered by certain head positions or movements. In short, it makes you feel as if you are off-balance or the world around you is spinning.

While this is most common in older individuals, many will experience BPPV at some point in their lives. “I see it in all ages,” says Stachler.

So how does this happen? In the most basic terms, crystals of calcium carbonate in your inner ear can break off and move around. The particles’ movement causes sensors in the ear to believe the head is moving. The sensors then send those signals to the brain which causes the sensation of spinning. While this can be caused by head trauma or inner ear damage, most cases of BPPV happen for no reason at all.

Though it sounds scary, BPPV is relatively easy to identify and treat. “Often times, people go to the emergency room with [BPPV].” says Stachler, “Unfortunately the doctors do expensive work-ups when all they need to do is a Dix-Hallpike maneuver [to identify BPPV].”

The maneuver involves a doctor turning the patient’s head 45 degrees toward the ear, then quickly lowering the patient to a horizontal position on a bed with their neck hanging off the edge at a 20-degree angle. The doctor then watches for nystagmus, or uncontrolled and repetitive movement of the eyes, which indicates BBPV.

Once identified, BPPV can be treated with a quick trip to the doctor’s office using the Epley maneuver. The treatment entails a series of movements in 30-second intervals aimed at repositioning the crystals in the ear. Stachler says the procedure can quickly cure BPPV 85 to 90 percent of the time.

Still, if you experience consistent dizziness for more than a minute, it is likely not BPPV. Always consult your doctor.

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