More than an exceptional Alfred Hitchcock movie, vertigo is a label that plagues many a person. It is not, as some might suspect, a fear of heights (acrophobia). The term is used to identify any experience of disorientation. The true definition of vertigo is a sense of spinning, while holding still. This can be associated with the physical spinning of the body in circles or excessive alcohol consumption or perhaps a drug side effect or a viral infection or even crystalline matter that might dislodge and cause disruptive irritation of the balancing fluids of the inner ear.
This particular phenomenon is associated with de-synchronizing the fluid position in the semi-circular canals of the inner ear with the rest of the proprioception efforts of the mind. Proprioception means one’s own sense of relative position. The mind gathers information from the semicircular canals of the inner ear and the cerebellum of the brain and visual cues from our eyes to construct a balanced sense of orientation in our environment.
The semicircular canals consist of three circular tubes located in the inner ear, positioned alongside the cochlea which interprets sound. These canals are filled with fluid that shift, much as the fluid in a carpenter’s level shifts, to indicate position. The three canals are situated to orient in each of the three dimensional planes. If the fluid position lags behind the actual position of the head as perceived by the eyes and cerebellum, then the mind will produce signals that are disturbingly disorienting.
The term vertigo is often used for any disorientation, including simple dizziness which has more to do with oxygen deprivation to the brain than an inner ear condition. Dizziness can be seen in people with anemia or hypoglycemia or hypothyroidism or asphyxiation by a poison.
A somewhat common cause of vertigo is Meniere’s Disease which is little understood and may be precipitated by a viral infection or fluid buildup in the inner ear or poor circulation. It is suspected to have a genetic component to it in some individuals and it may be progressive, meaning that it could lead to deafness.
Another common, and easier to treat, cause of vertigo is the presents of calcium crystals in the semicircular canals.. They may become dislodged and float about the canals disrupting the fluid movement of the liquid.
A quite simple positional movement of the head (the Epley maneuver) can reposition the crystals with the help of gravity to their appropriate location and resolve the disorientation phenomena.
Motion sickness is certainly a type of vertigo caused by the eyes and the body being de-synchronized.
As with any condition, it is important to identify the cause in order to treat it appropriately. After all, Jimmy Stewart needed to discover the true identity of his “Madeleine” before he could overcome his disoriented state. Treatments vary from simple head manipulation to antibiotics to chelation for plaque removal.
Dr. Miles practices Naturopathic Medicine alongside other holistic practitioners at the Catalina Clinic of Integrative Medicine in Catalina, Arizona.