Rotational Vertigo

I’ve had several requests to describe what Rotational Vertigo feels like to me.  It is actually quite hard to describe in a way that the average person might be able to visualize. When I’m pressed for time I frequently say something like imagine the worst drunken binge you’ve ever been on. Most people who casually ask the question are satisfied with this response.

But that really doesn’t do the symptom justice.  For me, being drunk (even mildly intoxicated) can be vertigo inducing, has always been vertigo inducing.  I don’t drink and go to sleep anymore. That almost never happens.  If I feel like having a glass or two of brandy or cognac or other alcohol including a single beer, I’m generally up for the duration of the effect (8 hours or so) because lying down makes the vertigo worse.

So what is rotational vertigo really like?

First, imagine you are at the center of a merry-go-round.  The merry-go-round is spinning. It doesn’t even have to spin fast, it can spin quite slowly, just enough that you can’t fixate on a single point in the background.

This is the key problem with the spinning. It isn’t real, but your body doesn’t know this.  Your body doesn’t know that the balance mechanism in the ears is broken. So your eyes try to track the spin that isn’t there, causing your vision to dance back and forth (this is why reading can be a chore when you have a problem with vertigo) mimicking the spin the balance mechanism says is occurring.

So you are on a spinning merry-go-round. Now imagine that every stationary object you want to interact with is spinning at the same rate. There is no fixed point to anchor to (if you concentrate really hard you might just be able to override this. Maybe) so the handrails on the stairway, the walls of the shower, the glass of water to wash your pills down with dance madly around you while you try vainly to grab them from thin air.

Now imagine that this dance continues for the rest of your life; figuratively, if not in reality. Because it feels like forever. I’ve fought this thing for days at a time in the past, just because I’d already slept for what felt like days and I just couldn’t sleep anymore no matter how many pills I took.

I can’t describe it better than that. I don’t dare go looking for video to describe it.  Just seeing video that includes rotation in the theater can bring on sympathetic feelings of spinning.  I frequently must look away from films with rapid rotation (Gravity was torturous. Loved that film, couldn’t watch half of it. Go see Gravity in the IMax and sit real close with your hands trapped at your sides) or I have to hold my hands up in front of my face so that I can see that there is a stationary object in view while the rotation on screen persists.

The real answer is you don’t want to know.  You can trust me on this subject.


So how should I treat it? is the question you are probably left with if you have this symptom. My treatment article is here:

However, dizziness and vertigo are so common that they rate a separate discussion from the general Meniere’s regimen that I describe in that post. Dizziness is the most common complaint that doctor’s hear (I recently had a month-long bout of mild dizziness. It looks like it might have been anemia. -ed.) and can be caused by dozens of different maladies. Take your pick. If the cause of your dizziness is one of those maladies, nothing I can say will likely help you with that form of dizziness. My apologies in advance.

Still, there are reasons why the ears themselves might be causing the dizziness, and if that is the cause then you can do things as simple as chewing gum or popping your ears by putting pressure on the eardrum (forcing air up through your eustachian tubes. Carefully) to make the dizziness recede. I usually do those two things before trying anything else.

If that doesn’t help, then there are various treatments for re-aligning the otoconia in the inner ear. Otoconia are little calcified rocks inside your inner ear that move with the fluid and the motion of your head. Sometimes they get stuck in one of the labyrinths of the inner ear and can be dislodged by performing various exercises that I’m not going to try to describe here. But the otoconia being out of place is frequently the cause of otherwise inexplicable dizziness and some forms of vertigo. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is one of the types of dizziness caused by the otoconia being out of place. I’ve tried a few of these treatments for persistent dizziness (dizziness that lasts several days) with limited success. The half-somersault maneuver looks like one of those kinds of treatments. That linked video or any number of other videos on youtube will give you an idea of how you might try addressing the problem yourself.

If the problem is the otoconia of the inner ear then this kind of treatment should alleviate the problem. If it isn’t the rocks in your head (I just wanted to type that sentence one time) then those exercises won’t solve anything and may make the dizziness worse. It is pretty straight-forward to just try these procedures if the vertigo doesn’t let up after a few hours. You are liable to find that it won’t help for meniere’s vertigo and dizziness. If you still feel dizzy it is probably a good idea to see a specialist before ruling this kind of treatment out entirely. An ear, nose and throat doctor will be able to visually tell if the problem is the otoconia by observing you during treatment. I have given up on them unless it is a specific kind of dizziness that I recognize as being different from the Meniere’s.

The one thing I have found that helps for vertigo and dizziness aside from drugs is finding a head position and/or a focus point to stare at. I personally find that turning the head slightly to my right and looking slightly downward is the best position for me. I have a catbus that sits near the correct position next to the bed. A friendly catbus that smiles its cheshire grin at me while I try desperately not to spin.

Staring at a fixed point in space, preferably staring at an object that is crafted to inspire trust and happiness, helps quell the spinning long enough for the drugs to kick in, or until the spell passes. One or the other of these two things will occur eventually. I hope you find relief from these miserable symptoms if you are having them. I really hope that if you are reading this right now that you discover what is causing your symptoms and that they stop for good. It is what all of us hope for.