Every year, millions of people in the United States develop vertigo, a sensation that you or your surroundings are spinning. The sensation can be very disturbing and may increase the risk of falling. If you’ve been diagnosed with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), you’re not alone—at least 9 out of every 100 older adults are affected, making it one of the most common types of episodic vertigo. The good news is that BPPV is treatable. Your physical therapist will use unique tests to confirm vertigo, and use special exercises and maneuvers to help.
WHAT IS BBPV?
Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is a common inner-ear problem affecting the vestibular system, a system used to maintain balance. BPPV causes short periods of dizziness when your head is moved in certain positions, relative to gravity. Benign means that this disorder is not life threatening, and generally, the disorder is not progressive. Paroxysmal means that the vertigo (spinning sensation) occurs suddenly. Positional means that the vertigo is triggered by changes in head position, most commonly when lying down, turning over in bed, or looking up. This dizzy or spinning sensation is called vertigo.
A layer of calcium carbonate material is present naturally in 1 part of your inner ear (the utricle). BPPV occurs when pieces of this material break off and move to another part of the inner ear, the semicircular canals (usually the posterior canal). These tiny calcium crystals (otoconia) are sometimes called “ear rocks.”
When you move your head a certain way, the crystals move inside the canal and stimulate the nerve endings, causing you to become dizzy. The cause of BPPV is usually not known; however, the crystals may become loose due to trauma to the head, infection, conditions, such as Meniere’s disease, or aging. BPPV is more common among females, and it may be hereditary.
HOW DOES IT FEEL?
BPPV occurs most commonly following position changing, such as lying down, turning over in bed, bending over, and looking up. A short delay, often less than 15 seconds, may follow a position change before symptoms start. This dizzy sensation, called vertigo, is brief and intense and usually lasts for about 15-45 seconds. However, symptoms may last for up to 2 minutes if the crystals become stuck to part of the inner ear. The episodes of vertigo occur frequently for weeks or months at a time. During these episodes, you may feel like the room is spinning around you, and you also may feel lightheaded, off balance, and nauseous.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
The signs and symptoms of BPPV usually last less than a minute. The signs and symptoms may come and go or may disappear for a period of time, and then recur. Movement of the head causes most of the signs and symptoms of BPPV, which may include:
- A sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving (vertigo)
- A loss of balance or unsteadiness
HOW IS IT DIAGNOSED?
The diagnosis of BPPV is based on whether you have a particular kind of involuntary eye movement (called “nystagmus”), and whether you have vertigo when your head is moved into certain positions. Your physical therapist will perform tests that move your head in specific ways to see whether vertigo and involuntary eye movement results. These tests will help the therapist determine the cause and type of your dizziness, and whether you should be referred to a physician for any additional testing.