A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Can your ears cause vertigo?

Spiral vortex, dizzy with vertigoWhen the room seems to move around you, or you feel light-headed or off-balance, you may describe these sensations as feeling dizzy. Medically, this illusion is often diagnosed as vertigo.

“Dizziness can be caused by specific conditions like migraine headaches or a drop in blood pressure,” said Candace Pernsteiner, a Marshfield Clinic physical therapist. “But often what people experience is positional vertigo caused by little bones in the ears that have fallen out of place.”

Ear crystals shift

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is a problem with the inner ear. The inner ear contains the vestibular system, which helps you keep your balance.

Tiny parts of the ear make up the vestibular system. This system includes the utricle, saccule and semicircular canals. The utricle contains calcium crystals that sometimes move into the semicircular canals.

“When the crystals shift, it can make you feel like you’re spinning,” Pernsteiner said. “I ask my patients if they can recreate the sensation when doing certain movements such as looking up into a cupboard or tipping their head back while taking a shower. If they can recreate their symptoms, it’s likely they have BPPV, which is treatable.”

To know for sure, see your doctor. They can check for any nerve or muscle coordination problems. Pupil responses to light and facial muscle and reflex responses are indicators of medical causes for vertigo other than your vestibular system. When the diagnosis is BPPV, physical therapy often is recommended.

“Physical therapists will assess eye movements, balance and joint and muscle coordination,” Pernsteiner said. “Treatment will reposition the ear crystals to relieve BPPV symptoms and retrain your body’s balance system. Most patients respond well to this rehab in one to three sessions and return to their normal level of everyday activities.”

More common with aging

Older people are more likely to experience episodes of BPPV.

“As we age, our bones become more brittle and may more easily move around in the ear,” Pernsteiner said. “BPPV also can happen as the result of an accident, hard fall or a concussion.”

Too often people put up with vertigo symptoms thinking nothing can be done about them.

“Vertigo can put you at higher risk for falls,” Pernsteiner said. “Symptoms may be caused by medications or motion sensitivity. If you’re experiencing vertigo symptoms, check with your doctor to learn the cause.”

  1. Nov 5, 2015
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