Here's Why Some People Experience Vertigo — And What To Do If It Happens To You

Ever been sitting minding your own business and suddenly discovered that the world is spinning rapidly of its own volition? Vertigo, or the illusion of motion, isn't just the sensation you get when you peer off a tall building; it's a symptom of a problem in the body's internal balancing system, creating the sensation that you're moving even when you're not, and in chronic cases it can persist for days or even years, according to experts. That odd spinning feeling begins in your inner ear, and is more sensitive to problems and issues than it may seem. There are many things we're still finding out about vertigo that are helping us figure out how best to deal with it, whether it's your first dizzy spell or your fiftieth.

Vertigo isn't actually a disorder; it can be a symptom of a swathe of different balance problems, with the most common being benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or basic dizziness that's caused by movement. Balance disorders in general are called vestibular conditions, all of which interfere in different ways with the inner ear, the central organ that dictates balance and experiences of movement. While everyday vertigo (the kind caused by spinning too much on an office chair) resolves itself as the inner ear returns to "normal," chronic vertigo is caused by anything from inflammation of inner ear tissue to problems with the fluid inside the ear, and even nerve problems. It's a complex system that still needs to be better understood, but here are eight things that you need to know about vertigo.


It's More Common In Women Than Men

Vertigo disorders in general appear to be more common in women than men, and we're not entirely sure why. Vestibular disorders become higher-risk as we get older — they're most common in people over 50 — but more women than men record chronic vertigo experiences overall, studies say. There's not much research that explains this gender divide; it doesn't appear to be down to a more intricate or weaker vestibular system in women, for instance. One theory that's been suggested is that it has something to do with fluctuations in women's hormonal cycles, particularly in women with chronic vestibular disorders — but more studies need to be done before we get more conclusions about that.


It's Related To Migraines

If you're prone to migraines, chances are that you have increased vulnerability to dizzy feelings, too. A study in the journal Neurology found that there's a pretty clear relationship between the two, and vestibular migraine is a recognized issue. Vestibular migraines are a type of migraine characterized by a complete inability to move your head or eyes without inducing vertigo, but even migraine sufferers who don't get this particular condition can still experience vertigo before, during or after a severe migraine headache, likely due to a combination of blood flow issues and neurological changes.


It Can Be Caused By An Inner Ear Infection

If you're experiencing vertigo regularly, it could be down to an infection in the delicate parts of your inner ear that dictate your sense of balance and movement. Seriously chronic vertigo is often caused by vestibular neuronitis, a condition where the vestibular nerve that connects the ear to the brain is inflamed. This causes, in effect, a communication problem; the inner ear become disconnected from the body, and makes you feel like you're moving even if you're not.

People with this condition have a symptom called nystagmus, where the eyes move constantly and repetitively, trying to "correct" the body's experience of its movement in space. And vestibular neuronitis comes from an interesting place: it's caused by herpes simplex 1, which can lie dormant in the system for years.


Or It Can Stem From A Condition Called Labyrinthitis

Alongside vestibular neuronitis, one of the more common causes of chronic vertigo is a condition called labyrinthitis. Yes, as in the labyrinths of mythology — but also, as in the part of the inner ear called the labyrinth, which contains fluid that carries information about the body's movements to the brain. If the labyrinth gets inflamed or the fluid is affected, the brain gets confused. Women are far more likely to get it than men, and it's mostly often caused by a virus. Often labyrinthitis involves nerve problems too, but it's a lot rarer than neuronitis. And it can result in some pretty serious dizzy spells.


It's Related To Air Pressure, But Not The Seasons

If you've heard that vertigo can be induced by the atmosphere, you're right — sort of. Despite some people believing that it can be induced by a change in seasons, studies have shown that there's no apparent increase in vestibular disorders at any one particular point in the year, and the seasons don't appear to play a role at all. What does seem to cause problems, however, is strong shifts in atmospheric pressure. A study in 2016 found that people with one of the most serious vestibular disorders, Menière's Disease, were far more likely to have a vertigo episode if they experienced changes in air pressure. This may be what people who feel increases in vertigo at certain points in the year may actually be experiencing.


Many People Get It From MRIs

If you've ever been inside a magnetic resonance imaging machine for a medical test, you may have come out or gone in feeling serious vertigo. This is a recognized medical phenomenon and it's puzzled researchers for ages, but we now know a bit more about it, and that's shed some light on human balance and vertigo in general. An experiment in 2011 found that the magnetic fields in MRIs seem to interfere with the fluid in the canals of the labyrinth, making people's brains confused. And this means that strong magnets might also play a role in vertigo experiences, though we know less about how that works.


Dealing With It Can Involve Some Weird Maneuvers

How do you cure chronic vertigo? It's a serious question, and one that researchers are putting a lot of thought into. Alongside the potential of magnets and the use of some medications, there's also a lot of research into the possibility of ear implants, which would correct the information coming out of the inner ear and help the brain make better sense of the body's movements. Some vertigo sufferers are being given VR goggles or electrical brain stimulation to attempt to shift the input issue between ear and brain, but there's no sure-fire cure.

Simple bursts of vertigo have easier cures. Antihistamines are recommended as a short-term cure, but if you're getting dizzy, regularly doctors tend to recommend head positioning techniques to get your inner ear back on track. A technique called the Epley Maneuver, which involves a bed, a pillow and strictly angled head movements repeated several times, is meant to help the sensation of movement stop. If you do keep having vertigo, though, you need to see your GP or an ear, nose and throat specialist to sort out what may be causing it. As we've seen, it can be drawn from a variety of causes — and it takes a specialist to narrow down exactly what's happening.