It might start slowly. You get on a roller coaster that you used to love only to feel like the world is in motion for hours after. You might even notice when you stand too quickly that it takes an extra minute for your brain to catch up to your body before you feel steady enough to take a step. Or you might find yourself suddenly unable to walk, stand upright, or even roll over in bed without feeling as though the room is spinning. Regardless of how it happens, vertigo is a common, but a sometimes debilitating condition that can interfere with your everyday life in unexpected ways.

How Your Body Controls Balance

Before you can understand what happens when your balance is “off”, it is important to know how balance works in your body. Your balance system is a complex integration of information from your eyes, ears, muscles, joints, and skin. Signals from around your body are sent to your brain where they are processed. This information then helps your brain automatically make microscopic adjustments to the way you are standing, sitting, walking, running, or performing any physical function that requires balance. The most important part of your balance system is found in your inner ear. There, three interconnected, fluid-filled semi-circular canals contain millions of hair cells. When your head moves, the hair cells send nerve signals to the brain via the acoustic nerve. The brain processes these signals to determine where we are relative to our surroundings.

What Causes Vertigo?

Vertigo, dizziness, or that feeling that the world is spinning, is most often caused by a problem in the inner ear. One of the most common causes of vertigo is benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). Tiny crystals (called canaliths) form in the fluid in the inner ear and begin to disrupt the nerve hair cells inside. When this happens, you might feel dizzy no matter what you do. While there is no definitive cause of BPPV, the fluid in the inner ear becomes more viscous as we age, which may contribute to the development of canaliths. It is also possible for vertigo to happen during an inner ear infection or as the result of Meniere’s disease, a buildup of fluid with changing pressure in the inner ear.

Is Vertigo Dangerous?

While vertigo itself is not necessarily hazardous to your health, it can threaten your safety. If you are experiencing vertigo, it is important to take precautions to not fall and hurt yourself further. In rare cases, vertigo is a symptom of a more serious underlying condition such as a blood clot in the brain, impending stroke or heart blockage. This is why it should never be taken lightly.

Dizziness and vertigo can range from a nuisance to a debilitating impairment. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it is important to seek medical attention to uncover the cause of your unsteadiness and treat it before it becomes a danger to your safety.