It’s one of the worst feelings in the world: Your alarm clock goes off and you sit straight up to turn it off, only to find that everything in the room is spinning. You feel sick to your stomach, and you don’t know which way is up.
We’ve all fallen victim to dizzy spells from time to time, and we can all agree that they can feel unnerving, to say the least. According to the University of California, San Francisco, nearly 40% of U.S. adults experience vertigo at least once in their lifetime, and women are slightly more prone to it than men.
Dr. Amit Ray, MD, a neurologist in the Department of Neurology with Advocate Aurora Healthcare, explains that dizziness is a “non-specific term.”
“Patients use the term synonymously for various symptoms including vertigo, light-headedness and feeling faint, unsteadiness, and gait problems, to name a few,” he says.
Since dizziness is a symptom that can result from a wide variety of ailments, from the very ordinary to the more serious, you may be wondering if your dizziness is something you should discuss with your doctor. Dr. Ray shares that the following can be causes for concern:
- Any time the dizziness is sudden in onset.
- Any time there are other signs which could suggest stroke, like double vision (not blurred vision), difficulty speaking or slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, or weakness or numbness of one side of body.
- Repetitive or persistent symptoms
- Loss of consciousness
- Falls or difficulty walking
It’s important to be as specific as you can when explaining your symptoms. Dr. Gina Jetter, MD, Neurologist at Northeast Texas Neurology Associates lists questions to ask yourself: “When you feel dizzy, what does that mean? Do you feel that you are in constant motion or the world around you is moving? Do you feel lightheaded, like you are about to pass out or faint? Or do you feel unsteady and off-balance?”
She adds, “It is important to pay attention to your symptoms to know when you need to seek medical attention immediately.”
You should know that everyday dizziness is something that can happen out of the blue as well. Whether it’s concerning or not, if your dizziness has become a problem and it’s inhibiting your life, it’s always a good idea to talk with your primary care physician about it. They can recommend courses of treatment along with medications and home remedies that can make you feel much better.
Why am I dizzy?
Here are 11 possible reasons why you’re dizzy.
Dr. Ray defines vertigo as “a room-spinning sensation, often accompanied by nausea and vomiting.” You’ll have a hunch that you have it if every little turn of your neck makes you feel even dizzier and more nauseous. He says that vertigo can be caused by an inner ear infection, which is “typically viral and accompanying or followed by upper respiratory infections,” and inner ear inflammation brought on by allergies.
2. Benign vertigo
Another form of vertigo is something called benign vertigo, or as Dr. Ray explains it, a “deposition of microcrystals in inner ear hair cells responsible for maintaining balance.” It’s more specifically known as Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, or BPPV, and it’s one of the most common forms of vertigo.
“It’s usually 10 to 30-second episodes of intense vertigo or a spinning/moving sensation,” Dr. Jetter says. “You may experience several episodes a day, lasting weeks.”
She details that nausea and vomiting are often associated with BPPV, and it’s triggered by movements of the head, like bending over or turning in bed. “Although very debilitating, BPPV is not life-threatening,” Dr. Jetter adds.
3. Motion sickness
Dr. Ray lists motion sickness as a common cause of dizziness. If your dizziness takes place when you’re in the car, on a boat, on an airplane, or on a theme park ride, your sense of balance and equilibrium is out of whack, resulting in dizziness.
4. Meniere’s disease
Meniere’s Disease is a disorder of the inner ear “with typical symptoms including vertigo for hours, unilateral hearing loss that may come and go, a fullness sensation in the ears, and a ringing in the ears,” Dr. Jetter says. Affecting around 615,000 people in the United States according to the American Hearing Research Foundation, Dr. Jetter says that this disorder “is not life-threatening, but the symptoms are debilitating.”
5. Vestibular migraine
“A type of migraine called vestibular migraine can cause dizziness,” Dr. Jetter says. “This dizziness is often described as vertigo and motion sensitivity. Nausea is also common. These symptoms may occur just before a migraine headache or may be without migraines. The timing of the episodes varies for five minutes up to 72 hours. Vestibular migraines are not life-threatening but can negatively affect your quality of life.”
Dr. Ray says that migraines are probably among the most common “and underrecognized” reasons for dizziness. He adds, “Migraines may or may not be accompanied by severe headaches. Not uncommonly, dizziness may be the only symptom and a headache may not be present at all.”
6. Persistent postural perceptual dizziness
Persistent postural perceptual dizziness or chronic subjective dizziness is often described as a rocking or floating sensation.
“You typically do not have nausea, nor it is worsened with movement,” Dr. Jetter says. “As its name implies, this is a dizziness that is constantly present, usually for months. Stress and anxiety make this type of dizziness worse. Most people with persistent postural perceptual dizziness have significant disability, but this condition is not life-threatening.”
There are many signs that can signal a stroke—double vision, slurred speech, weakness in the face and/or extremities, a feeling of incoordination on one side of the body, nausea, vomiting—and dizziness is another to add to the list.
Dr. Ray explains that strokes, especially in the cerebellum which is the part of the brain responsible for balance, can cause dizziness.
“A stroke in the back part of the brain can cause dizziness that is often described as off-balance or being pulled to one side,” Dr. Jetter says, adding, “Strokes are serious and life-threatening. If you feel that you are having symptoms of a stroke, call 911 immediately.”
Although seizures are an uncommon cause of dizziness, it can sometimes be one of the warning signs of a seizure, Dr. Jetter says.
“This dizziness can be vertigo, lightheadedness, or even a feeling of imbalance,” she says. “Typically, the dizzy sensation is always the same, lasts less than one to two minutes, and proceeds a seizure. Seizure symptoms include loss of awareness or convulsions.”
9. Certain heart conditions
“Certain heart conditions can make you feel dizzy or lightheaded,” Dr. Jetter says. “You can have shortness of breath, chest pains, or feeling that your heart is beating fast. Typically, this occurs in any position, but may be worse with standing or exercising. Some of these heart conditions can be life-threatening.”
10. Orthostatic hypotension
“Orthostatic hypotension is a condition that most people describe as feeling lightheaded or faint, like they are going to pass out,” Dr. Jetter says. “This condition occurs almost exclusively when standing or walking. When you stand, your blood pressure drops, decreasing the amount of blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Medications are common causes of orthostatic hypotension.”
If your nerves are fried and stress has been a regular part of your life lately, don’t be surprised if you’ve been having some dizzy spells here and there.
“Stress, anxiety, depression, and poor sleep can absolutely bring about dizziness,” Dr. Ray says. “We see this very commonly. Patients with these conditions can also have migraines, poor memory, fatigue, and other similar complaints. Also, medications used to treat anxiety, depression, and insomnia can cause dizziness.”