Ask the Expert: Vestibular Issues

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Kristin Schulz, a physical therapist and geriatric specialist affiliated with Sharp HealthCare, answers questions on vestibular issues and more.

What is a vestibular system?
Your vestibular system is basically your inner ear and its connections to the brain and the body. In other words, it’s your equilibrium center. Your inner ear is a system of fluid-filled canals that help provide the brain and the eyes with the crucial information on the position of your head and its movement in space with respect to gravity.

I get dizzy in the mornings. What does that mean?
A large percentage of the adult population reports dizziness or vertigo to their doctors during their lifetime. And there are many different causes of dizziness. You should go to the doctor if you have any new unexplained dizziness or balance problems, any new hearing loss or confusion, loss of coordination, weakness or have been falling. Your doctor may be able to refer you appropriately or suggest further testing to discover the source.

I get vertigo often. What should I do?
If you get vertigo often, you want to make sure that you follow your doctor’s recommendations and keep track of the episodes of vertigo, in terms of duration and what seems to make the vertigo worse, so you can discuss these episodes with your health care provider. Your doctor may do a medical history and many different examinations to decide if you have a vestibular problem. There can be regular age-related changes as well as specific disorders that can affect the inner ear and the balance systems.

Your doctor may also need to refer you to other specialists including an ear, nose and throat doctor, which may help to evaluate your vestibular system even further as well as your hearing systems.

What is BPPV (benign positional paroxysmal vertigo)?
Many people may have heard of loose crystals, commonly known as "ear rocks," in the inner ear, which may cause dizziness. It’s called benign positional paroxysmal vertigo, or BPPV. It is due to the debris that collects inside the inner ear. This problem is very common in people over the age of 50, sometimes because of a bump to the head, sometimes because of a fall or sometimes just because other vestibular disorders can put you at risk for this problem. The symptoms are usually intense vertigo or room spinning, especially with head movements, getting out of bed, rolling over in bed or bending down. Usually the vertigo only lasts briefly, less than a minute. It’s because the debris or the crystals inside the inner ear are shifting and they give the brain a false sense of movement. The good news about this problem is that it’s easily treated and it typically improves within just a few visits.

For More Information
To learn more about Sharp's senior health services or to find a Sharp-affiliated physician, search for San Diego doctors or call 1-800-82-SHARP (1-800-827-4277), Monday through Friday, 8 am to 6 pm. To find general information about senior health, read the Senior Health News archive.

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About the Expert
Kristin Schulz is a physical therapist and geriatric specialist affiliated with Sharp.