Feeling dizzy? Like your head is spinning? U-M expert offers help for vertigo sufferers
ANN ARBOR, MI -We've all had that dizzy feeling once in a while. Maybe you felt it when you suddenly stood up after sitting down for a long time. Or when you were looking up to search for something on a top shelf.
Now, imagine what it would be like to feel that dizzy and off-balance for minutes, hours, days or even years. This kind of serious dizziness, called vertigo, makes life miserable for millions of people each year, and keeps some from driving or working. It starts without warning for no apparent reason, and comes and goes.
Many people with vertigo and related balance problems never get effective treatment, or even a firm diagnosis. They may not even seek a doctor's help.
But a University of Michigan Health System expert explains that it doesn't have to be this way. Doctors today understand far more about what causes balance problems, and can offer specialized testing and treatment to help. Anyone who experiences dizziness, especially more than a few times, should see their doctor about it.
"Balance problems are very, very common. Almost everyone in their life will have a balance issue, be it mild or severe," says Hussam El-Kashlan, M.D., medical director of a special U-M center devoted to diagnosing and treating balance disorders. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 7.4 million people each year visit a doctor's office or emergency room for vertigo or dizziness.
"For some people, vertigo can be very debilitating," El-Kashlan explains. "During the acute attack, the person is totally incapacitated. They can't do anything for themselves and they're basically bedridden or lying on the ground until the attack passes. Often it's accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea and vomiting."
Why does this happen? There are actually many reasons in fact, it's better to think of vertigo as a symptom of a problem, rather than a disease itself, says El-Kashlan.
For instance, high blood pressure, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine can all cause a fleeting sense of dizziness when someone moves suddenly. Sudden loss of balance can also be a symptom of low blood flow to part of the brain.
Most physicians blame the inner ear for most types of dizziness. That's why doctors who specialize in ear, nose and throat disorders, like El-Kashlan, often treat people with prolonged or severe vertigo.
"People should really seek medical attention for any persisting balance problem," he advises. "If it's a problem of significant magnitude, if they feel that they're falling, if they can't function, or even if they have a minor problem that they didn't have before and that persists for a couple of weeks, they should talk with their primary doctor. And if it persists for longer, they should seek specialized help."
In such cases, a place like the U-M's Vestibular Testing Center, of which El-Kashlan is medical director, can perform advanced diagnostic tests and make a treatment plan that's individualized to each person's vertigo. Medications, physical therapy, at-home techniques and surgery can help.
To understand dizziness, vertigo, and other balance problems, it helps to understand how our bodies keep us balanced in the first place.