Dizziness is a term used to describe everything from feeling faint or lightheaded to feeling weak or unsteady. Dizziness that creates the sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving is called vertigo.
Dizziness is one of the most common reasons adults visit their doctors — right up there with chest pain and fatigue. Although frequent dizzy spells or constant dizziness can keep you from doing much of anything, dizziness rarely signals a serious, life-threatening condition. Treatment of dizziness depends on the cause and your symptoms, but is usually effective.
Dizziness can usually be more specifically described as one of the following sensations:
A number of underlying health conditions can cause these problems. Some of these conditions disrupt or confuse the signals your brain receives from one or more of your sensory systems, including your:
When to see a doctor
Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you experience dizziness or vertigo along with any of the following:
The key sensations that characterize your dizziness — such as vertigo, a feeling of faintness or loss of balance — provide clues for possible causes.
Causes of vertigo may include:
Feeling of faintness (presyncope)
Loss of balance (disequilibrium)
Other dizzy sensations such as floating, swimming or heavy-headedness
Inner ear and balance
Loop-shaped canals in your inner ear contain fluid and fine, hair-like sensors that help you keep your balance. At the base of the canals are the utricle and saccule, each containing a patch of ...
Dizziness can increase your risk of falling and injuring yourself. Experiencing dizziness while driving a car or operating heavy machinery can increase the likelihood of an accident. You may also experience long-term consequences if an existing health condition that may be causing your dizziness goes untreated.
Preparing for your appointment
Your family doctor or general practitioner will probably be able to diagnose and treat the cause of your dizziness. However, in some cases you may be referred to a specialist such as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or a neurologist.
Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out. For dizziness, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor will want to know what medications you're taking. He or she will also ask you when you experience dizziness, how long it lasts and how often it occurs. Your doctor can narrow down possible causes of dizziness after determining the type of dizziness you're experiencing, reviewing your medical history and current medications, conducting a physical examination, and ordering further testing based on your signs and symptoms.
What you can do in the meantime
In addition, if you have had episodes of dizziness while driving, arrange for alternate transportation while you're waiting to see your doctor. Ask friends, family or colleagues to help you get to and from work and other activities, or look into public transportation.
If your dizziness causes you to feel like you might fall, take steps to reduce your risk. Keep your home well lit and free of hazards that might cause you to trip. Avoid area rugs and exposed electrical cords. Place furniture where you're unlikely to bump into it, and use nonslip mats in the bathtub and on shower floors.
Tests and diagnosis
Doctors can usually determine the cause of dizziness. To pinpoint what's causing your symptoms, you may be asked to tip your head back or lie on a particular side in the exam room so that your doctor can observe you.
You may need additional tests in a vestibular and balance laboratory, including:
In some cases, you may need magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This technique uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create cross-sectional images of your head and body. Your doctor can use these detailed, clear images to identify and diagnose a wide range of conditions. MRI may be performed to rule out acoustic neuroma — a noncancerous brain tumor of the vestibular nerve, which carries sound from the inner ear to the brain — or other abnormalities in the brain that may be the cause of vertigo.
Even if no cause is found or if your dizziness persists, prescription drugs and other treatments may make your symptoms more manageable.
Treatments and drugs
Doctors base treatment of dizziness on the cause and your symptoms.
Lifestyle and home remedies
If you experience dizziness, consider these tips:
Last Updated: 2010-07-10
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