Dizziness runs right up there with skin problems, joint aches and back pain on the list of most common reasons for doctor visits, says Harvard Medical School professor Steven Rauch, MD, director of the vestibular division at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston. Not only that, Americans spent a head-spinning $4 billion on ER visits for the condition in 2011 (the most recent year for which we have such figures).
Clearly, we are a country in need of some serious spin control. But because dizziness can have many causes—and people tend to use the term to describe everything from simple light-headedness to full-on vertigo—it can be difficult to pinpoint the source and get relief.
For folks looking to their doctors for help, Rauch has this simple advice. “Describe what you feel without using the word ‘dizzy,’” he says, “and explain what makes it better, what makes it worse, how long you’ve had it and how long it lasts.”
This information may lead to a diagnosis of one of these five common conditions—and some simple ways to stop the spinning.
Inner Ear Problems
Inflammation, fluid, debris or benign growths can cause the balance organs in your ears to shift, throwing off your sense of gravity and making you feel like you’re moving when you’re not, a sensation known as vertigo. Inner ear problems often resolve on their own, but a doctor can teach you some exercises to relieve the vertigo.
Vertigo accompanies about 25 percent of all migraines. Because women suffer from them three times more than men, migraines are one of the primary reasons women seek treatment for vertigo. Make sure your neurologist knows if you’re experiencing dizziness with your other migraine symptoms.
Left untreated, high blood sugar can lead to diabetic neuropathy, a condition that damages nerve endings in your legs, leading to a loss of sensation in your lower extremities. When this happens, “legs aren’t sending normal signals to the brain,” Rauch explains, causing you to feel off balance, especially when moving from sitting to standing. It can be a natural part of aging or a side effect of medication, but anyone with diabetes who notices this symptom should check in with a doc, stat.
When you get stressed, your body reacts by releasing adrenaline and increasing your heart rate, which leads you to feel unfocused after the initial rush. This may have nothing to do with your balance, but Rauch suggest seeking help from your doctor anyway. Be sure, he says, to mention the stress connection and emphasize that it’s more a feeling of disconnectedness than disequilibrium.