Vertigo is a sense of spinning dizziness or a feeling like you’re about to lose your balance, and it’s associated with a wide range of conditions. While usually linked to inner ear infections, vertigo may also be caused by issues with the spine because of the way the nerves within the backbone connect with the brain. The issue sometimes goes away on its own. However, if you’re experiencing recurring episodes of vertigo, Santa Monica spine surgeons from The Spine Institute suggest taking a moment to consider how your spine might be involved.
Sensory Nerve Compression
Vertigo related to the spine is usually caused by compression of a sensory nerve that’s being irritated by a vertebra. Sensory nerves affect awareness of your environment. Compression may interrupt the transmission of nerve signals enough to affect balance by changing your sense of awareness. Often related to an issue within the cerebellum or the brainstem where it connects to the spine, vertigo that affects sensory neural pathways is known as central vertigo. Symptoms experienced may include:
- Lightheadedness and dizziness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to light
- Hearing loss or tinnitus (ringing in the ears)
Possible Causes and Contributing Factors
As is the case with many other spine-related conditions, vertigo related to the spine is often affected by movement. For instance, if the cervical spine is affected, daily neck motions may trigger symptoms. Failed spine surgery, sports-related injuries, degenerative arthritis, and sudden trauma are among the possible causes and contributing factors associated with vertigo that affects the spine.
Diagnosing Spine-Related Vertigo
Because spine issues aren’t usually the first consideration when patients report symptoms of vertigo, diagnosis is typically a process of elimination. Medical history can narrow down a source of symptoms, as can image tests. Eye movement and head impulse tests are sometimes done to determine if the type of vertigo involved is central vertigo or peripheral vertigo, which is the kind related to inner ear conditions. The doctor may also try to recreate symptoms by having you make certain movements.
Relief will only be experienced if a correct diagnosis is made. For this reason, testing is often comprehensive. If it’s determined the vertigo is spine-related, treatment will be focused on addressing the issue with the spine, which should ease related vertigo symptoms. The first step in the treatment process is to identify the location where the sensory nerve is being compressed and the specific reason for the compression (e.g. a herniated disc, a narrow area of the spine, or a bone spur). Once the source of sensory nerve compression is located, treatment may involve:
- Anti-inflammatory medications
- Non-surgical forms of disc compression
- Various form of physical therapy
- Safe stretching exercises
- Controlled movement exercises like yoga and tai chi
- Decompression and related stabilization surgery if conservative treatments aren’t effective after 2-3 months
Some people with vertigo experience relief with non-traditional treatments like acupuncture, acupressure, and herbal solutions such as ginkgo biloba, ginger root, and turmeric. Chiropractic manipulations may help with cervicogenic vertigo, which is caused by faulty motion patterns in parts of the upper spine and neck. Lifestyle adjustments that include avoiding or limiting tobacco use and alcohol and caffeine consumption may also be helpful.
If you are living with a serious spine issue, it may be time to consider having surgery. At The Spine Institute, we specialize in a wide array of procedures, from cervical disc replacement to decompression surgery. Santa Monica residents can call 310-828-7757 to schedule an appointment.