Vertigo is the sense of the world spinning, rotating, or rocking that is experienced even when a person is holding perfectly still. Some patients use the term vertigo interchangeably with dizziness to describe a variety of symptoms, ranging from balance disorders and difficulty with walking to motion sickness or lightheadedness. However, most health care professionals consider vertigo to be a specific complaint that involves the balance centers of the inner ear and the brain.

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What is vertigo?

To understand vertigo, it’s helpful to understand the anatomy of the ear. Sound waves travel through the outer ear canal until they reach the eardrum. From there, sound turns into vibrations, which transmits in the middle ear via three small bones — the incus, the malleus, and the stapes — to the cochlea and finally to the vestibular nerve, which carries the signal to our brain that interprets those nerve impulses as sound.

The inner ear is not involved with hearing. It is composed of three semicircular canals, positioned at right angles to each other, that are lined with sensitive nerve cells, which act like a gyroscope for the body. This arrangement of the semicircular canals, in combination with the hair cells within the utricle and saccule and otoliths (tiny structures which trigger the hair cells in response to movement), make up the vestibular system. This system provides instantaneous feedback to the brain, along with vision and proprioception receptors in the body, regarding our position in space.

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Many children attempt to create a sense of vertigo by spinning or riding a merry-go-round or rollercoaster. This type of induced vertigo is self-limiting; it lasts for a few moments and then disappears. In comparison, when vertigo occurs spontaneously or as a result of an injury or illness, it may last for many hours or days before resolving.