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Vertigo – What It Is, What Causes It

Rich Egger
The ER at MDH

McDonough County Sheriff Rick VanBrooker said he suffers from vertigo and he blamed the condition for the erratic driving that is the subject of a 911 complaint phoned in against him last spring. Tri States Public Radio reported the story last week, and this week TSPR talked to a medical professional to learn more about vertigo.

“Vertigo is one of the most difficult symptoms to explain and diagnose because you can’t you can’t touch it, you can’t feel it.  For people with inner ear disorders, all MRIs and CT scans are going to come up negative,” said Jennifer Wagoner, a physical therapist who specializes in vestibular rehabilitation with McDonough District Hospital Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Services.

​ Vestibular rehabilitation is physical therapy that addresses inner ear or balance disorders. 

“The number one reason people come into my clinic is that they have Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. We call it BPPV.  That is the misplacement of crystals inside the inner ear.  And it is my job to figure out which canal inside the inner ear the crystals are misplaced,” Wagoner said.

She said vertigo can also be caused by a problem with the central nervous system – such as a tumor or stroke – and it can be caused by a change in medication.

The condition varies from patient to patient, and Wagoner said vertigo can be mistaken for intoxication in some cases.

Credit Rich Egger
Jennifer Wagoneris a Physical Therapist with MDH Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Services.

“Throughout my career I’ve actually had several patients that have been asked to leave restaurants or public events because people actually thought that they were intoxicated, whereas they were actually having vestibular symptoms or vertigo,” she said.

Wagoner, who has treated patients with vestibular balance disorders for ten years, said, “My patients generally complain of spinning or whirling, (feeling) unbalanced, light-headedness, fatigue. It can be many different things. Some people can have trouble with visual focus, which can be caused by the inner ear.”

She emphasized dizziness is not a normal part of aging.

Credit Wikimedia Commons - staff (2014)

“If someone is having vertigo, most likely it can at least be at least improved and possibly resolved.  Vertigo is not a diagnosis, it’s a symptom. So we have to figure out the cause of why you’re having it.”

Vestibular disorders can also be brought on by a bacterial or viral infection in the vestibular nerve, and Wagoner said more research is being done into vestibular migraines, which are proving to be common.

She said vestibular rehabilitation is a growing area of study and that much of the research must be done on cadavers because the inner ear, which is about the size of a dime, is located behind the eardrum and is encased in bone. That means it can only be accessed by fracturing the skull.

She said her office provides free, 30 minute screenings for vestibular disorders such as vertigo.

Wagoner received her Certificate of Vestibular Rehabilitation from Duke University and the American Physical Therapy Association last July.  She said the certificate is held by fewer than 2,800 physical therapists across the country.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.