Feeling unsteady or dizzy can be caused by many factors such as poor circulation, inner ear disease, medication usage, injury, infection, allergies, and/or neurological disease. Dizziness is treatable, but it is important for your doctor to help you determine the cause so that the correct treatment is implemented. While each person will be affected differently, symptoms that warrant a visit to the doctor include a high fever, severe headache, convulsions, ongoing vomiting, chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, inability to move an arm or leg, a change in vision or speech, or hearing loss.
Dizziness can be described in many ways, such as feeling lightheaded, unsteady, giddy, or feeling a floating sensation. Vertigo is a specific type of dizziness experienced as an illusion of movement of one’s self or the environment. Some experience dizziness in the form of motion sickness, a nauseating feeling brought on by the motion of riding in an airplane, a roller coaster, or a boat. Dizziness, vertigo, and motion sickness all relate to the sense of balance and equilibrium. Your sense of balance is maintained by a complex interaction of the following parts of the nervous system:
The symptoms of motion sickness and dizziness appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the other four systems.
Circulation: If your brain does not get enough blood flow, you feel lightheaded. Almost everyone has experienced this on occasion when standing up quickly from a lying-down position. But some people have light-headedness from poor circulation on a frequent or chronic basis. This could be caused by arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, and it is commonly seen in patients who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or high levels of blood fats (cholesterol). It is sometimes seen in patients with inadequate cardiac (heart) function, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), or anemia (low iron).
Certain drugs also decrease the blood flow to the brain, especially stimulants such as nicotine and caffeine. Excess salt in the diet also leads to poor circulation. Sometimes circulation is impaired by spasms in the arteries caused by emotional stress, anxiety, and tension.
If the inner ear fails to receive enough blood flow, the more specific type of dizziness—vertigo—occurs. The inner ear is very sensitive to minor alterations of blood flow and all of the causes mentioned for poor circulation to the brain also apply specifically to the inner ear.
Neurological diseases: A number of diseases of the nerves can affect balance, such as multiple sclerosis, syphilis, tumors, etc. These are uncommon causes, but your doctor may perform certain tests to evaluate these.
Anxiety: Anxiety can be a cause of dizziness and lightheadedness. Unconscious overbreathing (hyperventilation) can be experienced as overt panic, or just mild dizziness with tingling in the hands, feet, or face. Instruction on correct breathing technique may be required.
Vertigo: An unpleasant sensation of the world rotating, usually associated with nausea and vomiting. Vertigo usually is due to an issue with the inner ear. The common causes of vertigo are (in order):
Call 911 or go to an emergency room if you experience:
The doctor will ask you to describe your dizziness and answer questions about your general health. Along with these questions, your doctor will examine your ears, nose, and throat. Some routine tests will be performed to check your blood pressure, nerve and balance function, and hearing. Possible additional tests may include a CT or MRI scan of your head, special tests of eye motion after warm or cold water or air is used to stimulate the inner ear (ENG—electronystagmography or VNG—videonystagmography), and in some cases, blood tests or a cardiology (heart) evaluation. Balance testing may also include rotational chair testing and posturography. Your doctor will determine the best treatment based on your symptoms and the cause of them. Treatments may include medications and balance exercises.
Remember: Most cases of dizziness and motion sickness are mild and self-treatable. But severe cases and those that become progressively worse deserve the attention of a doctor with specialized skills in diseases of the ear, nose, throat, equilibrium, and neurological systems.