When Vertigo Strikes: "What Was That?" and Other Questions I Needed AnsweredFeb. 10, 2020
By Kay McCallum
My first time experiencing vertigo was while turning over in bed in the middle of the night.
After securing a death grip on my bed sheets, I remember panicking and thinking, "How can it be so quiet?" Surely a natural disaster is happening! I looked over at my husband, only a few inches away, to see if he was okay — he was sound asleep.
So was that just the most vivid dream I've ever had? I'll just finish turning over and go back to…"WHAT WAS THAT?"
This was no dream. I was experiencing so much motion, and I couldn't tell if I was moving up, down or round and round. I felt terrified — even though I was clearly safe in my bed.
I realized it only occurred when I moved, but the feeling was so real that I couldn't stop myself from grabbing the bed frame. It seemed almost disabling to feel like I had no control over my own body. My anxiety was through the roof. I kept thinking, "Can I drive? Can I walk upstairs? How can I live my life feeling like I'm about to fall?"
I don't think anyone can truly prepare themselves for what vertigo feels like. But, I do think that knowing what I know now may have helped damper some of my initial panic.
If you're experiencing vertigo for the first time, you may have some of the same questions as I did.
How can I tell if it's vertigo?
I knew I needed to see a doctor, but I still didn't really know what was causing my symptoms. I thought it could be a sinus infection that had turned into a really bad ear infection. I figured I'd be fine after a few days of antibiotics.
After explaining my symptoms to my doctor, he mentioned I may have benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) — one of the most common types of vertigo.
It turns out that BPPV is pretty easy to diagnose. While lying down and turning your head left and right, they watch your eyeball for rapid eye movements called nystagmus. They can see these right away, and it's a sign of BPPV. And, sure enough, I had it.
Why does vertigo happen?
My doctor explained that vertigo is a balance disorder that starts in your inner ear. There are some tiny (but very important) bony structures in your inner ear surrounded in fluid that sense gravity and help with balance.
It's not always clear why it happens, but these structures can break off. If this happens, the loose fragments can produce false signals when they settle in certain parts of your ear. These false signals confuse your brain into thinking you're moving, when in fact you are still.
Why does vertigo make me so anxious?
Even once you realize that what you're feeling isn't actually real, it's almost impossible to convince your brain of that. One of the most challenging parts about vertigo is the battle you fight with your mind. You're trying to get your brain to understand that you're not in any danger — but it's so hard.
I could be lying in a king-size bed, surrounded by pillows, but I was still terrified to lie down in bed, put my shoes on or even scroll on my phone. That's how real it all feels.
The good news is that the feeling of intense motion trails off in a week or so — but future episodes remain a possibility. In my case, it returned three weeks later and lasted another four days.
How will vertigo affect my daily life?
Even after a vertigo episode ends, there may be residual effects on your balance. During each of my BPPV episodes, which lasted between four to seven days, the periods of intense motion lasted just five or six seconds each. But, my overall balance was impaired well past the episode. It was several months, in fact, before I felt confident with everyday tasks like walking downstairs, putting my shoes on, picking up an object from the floor, moving my head while walking...and the list goes on.
To be fair, I've never been the most coordinated person. So to help me feel more confident about my balance, I saw a physical therapist who taught me some techniques for improving my overall balance.
How is vertigo treated?
There are a few ways to reduce vertigo symptoms, but what helped me the most was canalith repositioning treatment, or CRT.
The canalith maneuver works much like one of those small water-filled toys that you manipulate to try to make a tiny metal ball move through a plastic hoop. Your inner ear has loop structures filled with fluid, and if you move your head a certain way you can encourage the loose fragments to move through the loop to a place where they no longer cause disturbance.
The maneuver isn't actually difficult, but it's anxiety-inducing if you have vertigo. It requires the same head movements and body motions that trigger the feeling of chaotic motion, so I found it hard to concentrate on performing the maneuver correctly. To make matters worse, if you don't get the moves exactly right the loose structures will remain in an area where they continue to cause disturbance — so nothing is gained. Also, there is another type of vertigo where the maneuver is not recommended, so I wanted to be sure CRT was safe for me.
The answer for me was physical therapy. With a therapist, I felt confident that I would not fall and could focus on performing the movements correctly.
Will my vertigo ever come back?
My vertigo went away a few days after the canalith repositioning maneuver, and it hasn't come back since. My doctor couldn't really tell me what caused my BPPV, but did mention that BPPV is more common as you get older — and also more common in women.
I don't know if I'll ever get BPPV again. While I hope I don't, I know I'll be more prepared than I was the first time.