Have you lost your marbles? A lesson on vertigo

FEATURE – Dizziness is something most of us have experienced at one time or another, whether caused by blood pressure levels, blood sugar levels, medication side effects, one too many beers or twirling in the living room with your 2-year-old.

Many people who suffer from a specific type of dizziness called vertigo often have no idea what is causing their symptoms, and it is usually something that is quickly and easily treated without medication. Vertigo is a type of dizziness that includes a spinning sensation, as if you are moving or the world is moving around you. The most common cause of vertigo is a condition termed Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo.

BPPV is the most common disorder of the inner ear’s vestibular system, which is responsible for equilibrium. People have an intricate system inside their ears that allowed them to maintain balance when functioning correctly. To understand the anatomy of this system, I’m going to have you imagine making Jell-O salad in a Bundt pan. You put chopped nuts in this Jell-O salad (yes, nuts; people have put worse in Jell-O salads) and the nuts all sink to the bottom. Once the gelatin sets up, you turn the bundt pan upside down and the nuts are now on top.

Part of the inner ear is like this Jell-O salad. There is a gelatinous membrane with little calcium carbonate crystals called otoconia at the top. The purpose of the otoconia is to help the body sense movement. When people move their heads, they help send a signal to the brain that the person is moving. As long as they stay put in the “Jell-O,” the brain gets a clear signal.

With BPPV, the otoconia get dislodged and are now free-floating through the fluid of the inner ear, sending the brain messages that the person is moving when in reality, they are not. The end result is vertigo, usually accompanied by nausea. If you have ever heard someone say, “I was dizzy, so I went to my doctor and he told me my crystals were loose” or “I have rocks in my head,” you probably thought that person truly had lost their marbles, but now you know what they were talking about: BPPV.

By now you‘re most likely asking, “How do you get the nuts back in the Jell-O?”

First of all, if you think that you or someone you know might have BPPV, make an appointment with a professional to correctly diagnose it and make sure it is not something more serious. Audiologists, physicians and physical therapists can all test you to see if it is truly BPPV. If they determine that your “crystals are loose,” the next step is finding exactly where they have gone. A simple positional test can determine this.

After they are located, it’s time to bring them back to the Jell-O. This is also a very simple positional maneuver that can be done quickly. Once they are back in place, the doctor or therapist will ask you to keep your head relatively still for the next 24 to 48 hours so that the otoconia can settle back into the membrane without dislodging again.

The good news is that usually it only takes one to three treatments for the symptoms to subside. The bad news is that you can no longer use “loose rocks in my head” as an excuse for your kooky behavior.

Terrin Parker
Terrin Parker

Written by Terrin Parker for St. George Health and Wellness magazine.

Terrin Parker is the associate editor of St. George Health and Wellness magazine and physical therapist from Cedar City, Utah. She graduated from Loma Linda University in California, and has lived in Denver, San Diego and St. George. She loves to surf, snowboard, write, travel, play the guitar and spend time with her husband and their 12-month-old son.

St. George Health and Wellness

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Copyright St. George News, StGeorgeUtah.com Inc. and St. George Health and Wellness magazine, 2013, all rights reserved.

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