Dizziness: Lightheadedness or Vertigo?

Dizziness: Lightheadedness or Vertigo?  (part 1)

Your ears do more than just help you to hear. The Vestibular System is also useful for maintaining balance. Part of the inner ear contains three semi-circular canals. These are full of fluid that react whenever you move your head. As the fluid shifts within the canals, small cilia (or hair-like protuberances from a cell) are activated and send messages to the brain. These messages tell your brain which direction the body is moving.

You know that feeling of dizziness after you have been spinning around? Well, the fluid in your inner ears was also spinning. That made the cilia move in all different directions and briefly confused your brain. When a person has a vestibular disorder, disruptions somewhere within the inner ear structures or along the nerve or brain pathways may occur.

What is the difference?

Dizziness is often used to describe either lightheadedness or vertigo, so it is important to know the difference in symptoms to help narrow down the list of possible problems.

Vertigo is the illusion that you or your surroundings are moving (rotating, spinning, leaning, falling) without actual movement. Severe vertigo can cause nausea or even lead to vomiting.  You may physically lose your balance or even have trouble walking. Vertigo is not the same as motion sickness, though, as this feeling is not actually triggered by repeated motion.

Lightheadedness is the sensation of almost fainting or passing out, but without the feeling that your surroundings are moving. It often disappears when you lie down. When lightheadedness gets worse, it can feel like almost fainting and may sometimes cause nausea to the point of vomiting. It is not uncommon for people to get a bit lightheaded, and it usually is not caused by an inner ear problem (i.e. it could be a momentary drop in blood pressure caused by getting up too quickly).

At Midwest ENT Centre, we work with patients who may be experiencing dizziness, imbalance or vertigo episodes. Depending on the patient’s symptoms, the doctor may request further assessment of the Vestibular System.  I will go into more detail later about some of the tests we perform here.