13 Facts About Vertigo

Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

It comes on suddenly. You feel like you're spinning—or maybe the world is spinning around you. Your stomach heaves, and you hold onto something so you don't fall. This is vertigo, a hallucination of motion—a mismatch between reality and the signals your eyes, inner ears, and sense of touch are sending your brain. Vertigo is a symptom, not a disease—an indication that something is wrong in the body—and it's surprisingly common. Here's what you need to know about the condition.

1. HAVING VERTIGO ISN'T THE SAME THING AS BEING DIZZY.

Dizziness is an umbrella term that describes the sensation of feeling lightheaded or faint. As kids, many of us experienced (and even enjoyed) that kind of garden-variety dizziness while spinning on a merry-go-round, but the sensation can also be caused by dehydration, motion sickness, or even a drop in blood pressure after standing up too fast.

While vertigo does make you dizzy, it also makes you feel like you’re spinning, swaying, or tilting. Some people with vertigo sense their bodies moving in space even though they’re standing still, while others sense their surroundings moving around them. A good way to tell you're experiencing vertigo and not just dizziness is that you feel like you're going to lose your lunch: “A person with vertigo can feel ill with nausea, vomiting, and other motion sickness-like symptoms,” says David Zee, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University and a specialist in vertigo.

2. IT'S A VESTIBULAR DISORDER.

The name refers to the system located in parts of the inner ear and the brain that control balance and eye movements. The most common vestibular disorders often induce vertigo. Others include bilateral vestibular hypofunction (which causes balance problems), acoustic neuroma (a kind of benign tumor that can cause tinnitus or hearing loss), and a variety of autoimmune inner ear diseases.

3. MOST CASES OF VERTIGO ARE CAUSED BY TINY ROCKS IN YOUR HEAD …

Doctors split vertigo into two categories: peripheral or central. The former, which originates in the inner ear, is far more prevalent than the latter.

The most common form of peripheral vertigo is benign paroxymal positional vertigo (BPPV). BPPV comes on quickly, causing disorientation and stumbling; some even fall out of bed. (People can mistake it for a stroke, and not without reason—sudden vertigo and loss of balance experienced at the same time can be signs of one.) Most episodes last about a minute and recur over a period of a few days or weeks.

The majority of peripheral vertigo is caused by otoconia (also called canaliths), tiny limestone and protein crystals that reside deep inside your ear in the vestibule. You’d need a high-powered microscope to see a single otoconium—they’re roughly 10 microns across, or about 0.000393701 inches. Despite their small size, "otoconia create a lot of mischief,” Zee says. “These little stones can get dislodged and kind of float around, producing a powerful false sense of spinning.”

Most of us likely have a few renegade stones floating around in our inner ears, but it’s only when large clumps of more than three or four stones form and get loose that there’s a problem. Why they dislodge and relocate remains a mystery, but in some cases, the stones' movements can be triggered by external motion—a knock on the head or a ride on a bumpy road.

4. … BUT THERE ARE OTHER TRIGGERS.

Migraine headaches can bring on the dizzying sensation, as can lying in the magnetic field of an MRI machine. Other causes include labyrinthitis, an infection in the inner ear, and vestibular neuronitis, an infection of the vestibular nerve, which controls balance. Some people have a rare type of chronic peripheral vertigo called Meniere’s disease, which is caused by a buildup of fluid in the inner ear. Often doctors can’t pinpoint a specific cause for an episode of vertigo.

5. ONE TYPE OF VERTIGO CAN PERSIST FOR A LIFETIME—BUT IT'S RARE.

Far less common is central vertigo, which originates in the brain. Symptoms can vary, but a person with central vertigo is often unable to walk due to severe imbalance and may have nystagmus—strange, involuntary eye movements. This type of vertigo can be caused by diseases or injuries to the brain, such as multiple sclerosis, tumors, concussions, or strokes. In some cases, it lasts for weeks or even the rest of someone's life, especially if they have permanent brain damage.

6. VERTIGO AFFECTS MILLIONS OF PEOPLE OF ALL AGES.

Nearly one-third of people over the age of 40 in the U.S.—roughly 69 million people—will experience vertigo at least once in their lives. It’s much more common in older people, especially those over the age of 60. But anyone can get vertigo, including children (though it may be harder to spot in kids because they can have difficulty describing their symptoms). Professional golfer Jason Day was just 27 when he developed vertigo during the U.S. Open, and basketball player Pau Gasol was in his early thirties when the condition benched him. Some medical historians believe Charles Darwin suffered from vertigo later in life.

7. WOMEN ARE THREE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO DEVELOP VERTIGO THAN MEN—BUT SCIENTISTS DON'T KNOW WHY.

Recent research suggests the disparity might be related to bone loss caused by aging, vitamin D deficiency (which impairs how the body metabolizes calcium—a key component of the otoconia’s mineral composition), or the increased frequency of migraine among women.

8. VERTIGO CAN BE EXTREMELY DISTRESSFUL.

Because it's so disorienting and comes on so suddenly, vertigo can cause anxiety and panic attacks. Chronic vertigo can cause depression in some people because doing everyday tasks—like caring for themselves, their children, or their family—is often impossible. They might even lose their job because driving is out of the question.

9. IT'S POSSIBLE TO GET SOME RELIEF FROM CERTAIN MEDICATIONS …

Drug treatments vary, based on the type of vertigo a person has, and generally target the symptoms of vertigo, not the cause. Antiemetics such as meclizine may inhibit the nausea or vomiting that accompanies most types of vertigo. For migraine-associated vertigo, doctors may prescribe beta blockers, anticonvulsants, or antidepressants. People with Meniere's disease may benefit from steroids or non-pharmaceutical approaches, such as a low-salt diet, which reduces fluid retention, or surgical procedures that help drain the inner ear.

10. … BUT PHYSICAL THERAPY IS THE ONLY THING THAT REALLY HELPS MOST CASES OF VERTIGO.

The most commonly used therapy for BPPV is the Epley maneuver (also known as a canalith repositioning procedure). Essentially, the exercises are human versions of those ball-in-a-maze puzzles you played as a kid, where you rolled a bead around in a maze, trying to get the bead to go into a hole. The goal is to roll the renegade otoconia (the beads) through the maze of canals inside your ear and return them to the vestibule (the hole). These moves, which take 15 minutes or less, resolve symptoms in about two-thirds or more of people with vertigo—usually after just a few tries.

11. DANCING CAN MAKE IT BETTER.

As you get older, you lose neurons in your inner ears, your brain’s coordination center, and in your feet—a triple whammy of losses that sets up a perfect storm for balance problems, Zee tells Mental Floss. But activities that challenge your sense of balance—like tai chi, yoga, or dancing—help in the long run. You don't get have to be as nimble as Johnny Castle log dancing or blind Frank Slade doing the tango—just get moving to the beat when your favorite songs come on.

12. VERTIGO DOESN'T STOP A GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER FROM SCALING BUILDINGS.

In 1982, French climber Alain Robert sustained massive injuries when he took a header from a rocky cliff during one climb—and though he recovered from multiple broken bones, the severe head trauma he sustained left him with chronic vertigo. Despite his condition, Robert returned to climbing (almost always without safety equipment), tackling the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, and a multitude of other tall structures, eventually scaling the Burj Khalifa—the world’s tallest building. He now holds the Guinness World Record for climbing the most buildings.

13. IN VERTIGO, HITCHCOCK GOT THE SPECIAL EFFECTS RIGHT BUT THE CONDITION WRONG.

Named the “greatest film of all time” by the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound magazine, Vertigo, starring Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, is a twisted tale about the human psyche, full of mystery, romance, and suspense—classic Hitchcock. The film is famous for its pioneering use of the dolly zoom—a camera technique sometimes called "the Vertigo effect" that recreates the unsettling experience. Although Hitchcock got the special effects right, the condition that Jimmy Stewart’s character had is not vertigo—it's acrophobia, or fear of heights. When a person with acrophobia looks down from a great height, they might feel vertiginous—but they're not experiencing a vestibular disorder. The reaction may be rooted in humans’ natural fear of falling.

Veterans Can Now Access Their Health Records Through Apple’s Health App

SeventyFour/iStock via Getty Images
SeventyFour/iStock via Getty Images

Apple’s iOS Health app is great for more than just checking how many steps you took during a lengthy walk in the park—it also stores health records from Johns Hopkins, Quest Diagnostics, Allscripts, and more than 400 other healthcare organizations.

Now, Fortune reports that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has joined that list, making it easier than ever for military veterans who receive healthcare through the Veterans Health Administration to access all of their health records, including medications, immunizations, lab results, and other information. In the press release, Apple explains that the app will automatically update the records, so all veterans need to do is log into their providers’s patient portals through the Health app for a “single, integrated snapshot of their health profile whenever they want, quickly, and privately.”

apple VA health app screenshot
Apple

Though the official announcement coincides nicely with Veterans Day on Monday, the change itself has been in the works for several months—the VA released the new feature to certain patients over the summer.

According to its website, the Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, servicing more than 9 million patients across 1255 healthcare facilities. With such an expansive network, any successful attempt to streamline processes and improve the flow of information—especially when it comes to sensitive, personal data—has the potential to be a major game-changer for veterans.

apple VA health app screenshot
Apple

“Helping veterans gain a better understanding of their health is our chance to show our gratitude for their service,” Apple COO Jeff Williams said in the press release. “By working with the VA to offer Health Records on iPhone, we hope to help those who served have greater peace of mind that their healthcare is in good hands.”

Wondering what you can do to help veterans? Here are 11 honorable ideas.

[h/t Fortune]

A Handful of Lucky College Students Live With Senior Citizens in This Minnesota Mansion

vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images
vadimguzhva/iStock via Getty Images

When Winona State University student Ashley McGaw skateboards home after a long day of nursing classes, she’s greeted by an unusual entourage: the elderly residents of a Minnesota assisted living facility called Senior Living at Watkins.

According to WFAA, McGaw and several other college kids live there with 45 seniors as part of Winona Health’s “Students in Residence" program, in which students volunteer their time with residents in exchange for discounted rent. For 10 volunteer hours per month, it’s $400, and doubling your hours drops it to just $200 per month. Not only does that include meals, it also gives students the chance to forgo the usual college dorm building for the stately glamour of an old mansion—their rooms are located in the historic Watkins Manor House, which is attached to the assisted living facility.

For freshman Joel Olson, the opportunity seemed like a no-brainer.

“'All you have to do is spend some time with some really nice people?'” he remembers thinking, according to KARE 11. “Of course!”

As for how they spend that time, it’s up to the students. Graduate student Laura Jensen hosts weekly crocheting sessions, nursing student Hanna Rottier offers manicures, and bulletin boards advertise free tech support.

And, in return for sharing their time and talents, students get to experience the familial affection and grandparental concern that’s often scarce on a college campus.

“They all mother me,” Jensen tells KARE 11 about the members of her crocheting club. “They take care of me.”

Winona Health assisted living director Cheryl Krage sees evidence of this, too.

“I hear residents wondering how the students are doing with their studies,” Winona Health assisted living director Cheryl Krage tells KARE 11. “‘Are you eating enough, are you getting enough fruits and vegetable[s]?"

According to the program page on Winona Health’s website, the program is especially beneficial to students looking to enter the healthcare industry, whether that’s medical school, nursing, social work, rehabilitative therapy, or even music therapy.

It also keeps senior citizens connected to the next generation in a deeper way.

“Helps us stay young – ger,” senior resident Diane Sheldon told KARE 11.

[h/t WFAA]

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