Dizziness: symptoms, causes, treatments

Patsy Westcott / 01 September 2016 ( 17 October 2016 )

Light-headed, woozy or off-balance? We ask the experts how you can put an end to dizziness.



Good balance is vital for everything, from getting out of bed in the morning to the myriad things we do each day. But as we get older, dizziness, vertigo, a moving sensation as though you’ve just stepped off a roundabout, or simply feeling ‘off-balance’, can make life difficult.

10 simple ways to reduce dizziness

‘Two out of five of us over 40 experience dizziness, and by the age of 65 it is one of the most common reasons to visit the doctor,’ says consultant physician Dr Nicola Cooper, from Derby Teaching Hospitals. ‘It often stops us doing everyday things for fear of falling.’ 

Of course, there are lots of simple reasons for a bout of wooziness. Dehydration and anaemia (detected by a simple blood test), to a sudden fall in blood pressure on standing (postural hypotension) – something that becomes more common as we get older – are common culprits. So, too, are side-effects from medications, so it makes sense to get these checked regularly by your GP. 

Sadly, GPs are not always as on the ball about the causes and treatments for dizziness as they could be. ‘Patients can suffer for years before getting any real help,’ observes Dr Khalid Bashir, who set up the pioneering Dizzyclear clinic at Bronglais Hospital, Aberystwyth. And while anti-vertigo drugs can help in the short term, they are not the solution. 

The good news is that there are now many alternative simple treatments that can combat symptoms fast. Here’s our guide:

BPPV - benign paroxysmal positional vertigo

Your symptoms: everything moves when you look up

Also known as ‘top-shelf vertigo’, this is the most common cause of dizziness in older people. 

It happens when small calcium crystals found on nerve endings in the ear dislodge and float into the inner ear canals.

‘Symptoms usually occur on looking up or bending down, to do up your shoes, say, and turning over in bed,’ says Dr Bashir. ‘They can last from a few seconds to several minutes.’ Some sufferers simply feel their balance is wrong and veer off to one side when walking. 

The fix: ‘If persistent, a simple, five-minute procedure called the Epley manoeuvre banishes symptoms for nine out of ten patients,’ says Dr Bashir. Usually performed by a doctor or physiotherapist, it involves moving your head into several different positions to shift the dislodged crystals back to their rightful place. 

Vestibular neuritis

Your symptoms: sudden feeling of drunkenness, being off-balance and nauseous

This inflammation of the vestibular nerve (which carries messages about head movement from the inner ear to the brain) is caused by a viral infection and sometimes incorrectly called ‘viral labyrinthitis’. 

The effects tend to come on suddenly and can be so disturbing that sufferers end up in A&E. The acute symptoms can last for 24-48 hours, but symptoms may linger for several weeks. 

The fix: Rest and fluids with medications to control nausea and suppress dizziness can help an acute attack. ‘However, one in five sufferers get stuck with chronic dizziness due to the brain’s failure to adapt to altered signals from the inner ear,’ explains Dr Cooper. Vestibular rehabilitation can help. It includes a series of head, neck and other movements designed to re-educate your balance systems.

Note: If you have a sudden attack of prolonged vertigo for the first time, see the doctor to check if it is vestibular neuritis or possibly a stroke. 

Ménière’s disease

Your symptoms: recurrent vertigo with tinnitus, deafness and pressure in one ear

This relatively rare condition is thought to occur when pressure changes in the fluid in the inner ear cause an inflammatory reaction.

Ménière’s usually affects just one ear and symptoms occur in bouts lasting around two to three hours. As it progresses, vertigo may be less frequent but tinnitus and hearing loss worsen and it can lead to permanent balance or hearing problems. 

The fix: In the past, sufferers were prescribed anti-vertigo drugs but the only permanent cure was surgery. But new research shows that steroid injections can put the disease into remission. And for those who aren’t helped by this, a single jab inside the ear of an antibiotic, gentamicin, alleviates symptoms for nine out of ten patients. 

‘Vestibular rehabilitation is essential, especially for older patients, to help the brain to adapt after treatment,’ adds Mr David Selvadurai, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at St George’s Hospital in South London. 

Tips for tinnitus

Migrainous vertigo

Your symptoms: dizziness, sickness and light or sound sensitivity

‘Migraine tends to change with age and you may just get attacks of vertigo without much of a headache,’ explains Dr Cooper. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting and/or problems with light or sound.

The fix: Migraine medication can help. However, says Dr Cooper, ‘It’s really important to see a doctor to rule out potentially more serious causes.’

Treaments that may help beat dizziness

DizzyFIX for BPPV

Consists of a cap you wear on your head, with a tube attached filled with fluid and a particle representing the calcium crystals found in the inner ear. Adjusting the angle of your head to move the particle guides you through the Epley manoeuvre. £70 (dizzyfix.com)

Meniett for Ménière’s disease

A battery-operated device generates a low-pressure wave that is transferred to the inner ear via a grommet. Around £4,000, not available on the NHS (meniett.com)

VertiGo for general dizziness

An app guide to vestibular rehabilitation. £2.29 for iPhone or iPad

Case history: dizziness cured by a quick, simple technique

Denise Mair, 58, an HR consultant from Kent, has suffered from dizziness for the past six years

‘It first happened when I was going to bed one night after a dance class. The room started to spin, as though the world was turning somersaults. It was very scary. When I got up the next morning I felt as if I was veering all over the place. 

‘The GP prescribed some anti-nausea pills and told me to rest. However, the spinning continued and I was eventually diagnosed with BPPV. I decided to see Nicola Harris, a London-based physiotherapist specialising in vestibular rehabilitation, privately. It proved to be a turning point. She performed the Epley manoeuvre, which stopped the dizziness just like that. You do feel a bit nauseous and washed out after it, but it’s very effective. 

‘I still get attacks – BPPV has a recurrence rate of around 30% – but now I understand what brings it on and can go and get it sorted out quickly.’

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.

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