Most of us have felt dizzy at least once in our lifetime. We can experience dizziness as lightheadedness, sudden muscle weakness, balance loss or the sensation that everything around us is moving or spinning. The causes for dizziness in any of its forms are varied and may range from low blood sugar levels, iron deficiency and fatigue to low blood pressure, neurological disorders, hormonal problems, side effects of certain medication, stress and anxiety or various neurological conditions or chronic illnesses that predispose to dizziness.
As long as it is an isolated episode, dizziness is generally no reason for concern. However, if we experience repeated episodes of dizziness along with other telling symptoms such as seizures, hearing loss, vision problems, chest pain, impaired mobility in an arm or leg or headaches, then it might be best we see a doctor for proper diagnosis. Although experiencing dizziness repeatedly can trigger anxiety and fear, it is important not to let it overwhelm us.
What is dizziness? In simple words, dizziness refers to anything that may impair our spatial perception of the world and ourselves. Dizziness is not a disease or a disorder in itself, but rather a symptom. According to the manner in which our perception of space is distorted, here are four main types of dizziness:
1) Vertigo. This is the most common type of dizziness and refers to the sensation of spinning or moving or the sensation that everything around us is moving or spinning. Nausea or vomiting may accompany vertigo.
2) Disequilibrium. This basically refers to the loss of balance which results in falling.
3) Presyncope. It is also known as lightheadedness and is characterized by a feeling of a weightless head, weakness in the muscles of the legs and arms in particular and a fainting sensation.
4) Non-specific dizziness. This is a particular type of dizziness caused by psychiatric disorders.
Is it normal to feel dizzy? In certain cases, yes, in certain cases no. It may be normal to feel dizzy when we wake up in the morning and get up too quickly from our bed or stand up too fast, either because of low blood pressure or low blood flow to the brain (gravity sends blood to our legs fast). It may be normal to feel dizzy after intense physical exercise, such as running. If the physical activity is too intense or the runner is not used to such an intensity, they may feel dizzy as a result of fast heartbeat or high blood pressure occurring due to effort. Changing glasses, blood loss (getting blood drawn, for example) or hitting our head may also cause dizziness.
For some people, dizziness is a normal body response to certain factors. In my case, standing up too fast makes me feel lightheaded and nauseated for a few seconds because I have low blood pressure, while getting my blood drawn makes me lightheaded and, sometimes, faint. Going to the doctor for some tests reassured me that such sensations are normal for me. It is important to see your doctor if you experience dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting or any similar sensation in order to exclude any potential underlying health problem.
What are the causes of dizziness?
Here is a list of some of the most common causes of dizziness:
1) Allergies. Food or seasonal allergies, dust allergy or allergies to animal hair and so on may cause vertigo and feelings of lightheadedness.
2) The common cold or flu. The common cold or flu viruses can lead to dizziness symptoms. This may be a result of dehydration which causes decreased blood volume or lack of appetite which may cause low blood pressure and subsequent lightheadedness, vertigo or fainting symptoms.
3) Dehydration. Any illness that causes diarrhea, vomiting or fever can also result in dehydration. In turn, dehydration can lower blood volume, cause loss of minerals and electrolytes and lead to dizziness and fainting.
4) Hyperventilation. Fever, shivering, physical exercise, stress, anxiety, etc. may all cause hyperventilation which, in turn, may lead to dizziness. For example, working out can cause one to become dizzy if the exercise routine was difficult, strenuous.
5) Blood loss. Any form of blood loss, even occult blood loss (losing small amounts of blood you don’t notice) may lead to lightheadedness and even fainting sensations. Dizziness as a result of blood loss can be caused by decreased blood volume and low oxygen in the blood as a result of anemia and can be accompanied by fatigue, depending on the amount of blood lost.
6) Tobacco. As uncommon as it may sound, the tobacco in cigarettes can lead to feelings of lightheadedness or heavy head or even fainting sensations in some people.
7) Arrhythmia, low blood pressure, high blood pressure. If left untreated, arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) can lead to dizziness and fainting (also called syncope). Both low blood pressure and high blood pressure may cause feelings of lightheadedness or blurry vision, heavy head sensations or fainting.
8) Heart attack or stroke. Both heart attacks and strokes can cause dizziness and fainting sensations. But considering the gravity of these conditions, they are often accompanied by more telling symptoms such as chest pain, neck, shoulder, arm or back pain, shortness of breath, cold sweats, nausea (for heart attacks), impaired movement in one or more limbs, speech problems, understanding what one is saying to you, impaired vision, vertigo or headaches (for strokes).
9) Medication. Acetaminophen in paracetamol, warfarin, certain sedatives, proton pump inhibitors in antacid medication such as esomeprazol, omeprazole, pantoprazole, etc. as well as several other medicines may cause dizziness in the form of lightheadedness, vertigo or fainting sensations.
10) Heat stroke. Staying in the sun is beneficial for our health as long as it’s done in moderation. Staying for too long can lead to sunstroke, dizziness and fainting sensation. Covering our heads, drinking sufficient water and limiting exposure is important.
11) Stress and anxiety. Chronic stress and anxiety may lead to dizziness in the form of vertigo and even fainting in some people. We must learn to reduce stress and anxiety in order to avoid their negative impact on our health.
12) Neck and back pain. Both neck pain and back pain, especially cervical pain, can lead to frequent episodes of dizziness, especially after physical effort (lifting heavy objects) or maintaining bad posture for a prolonged period of time.
13) Vision problems. Tired eyes, astigmatism, myopia (shortsightedness or nearsightedness) etc. may cause dizziness. Wearing new glasses or wearing glasses for the first time can also take the eyes time to adjust and may cause dizziness or headaches.
14) Ear problems such as otitis interna (inflammation of the inner ear), otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) or, rarely, tumours, can result in feelings of dizziness. Meniere’s disease is a hearing disorder which causes vertigo, tinnitus, migraines and hearing loss, while Benign paroxymal positional vertigo (inner ear disorder) can result of vertigo symptoms.
15) Hormonal imbalance. Hormonal imbalances such as thyroid hormone imbalances or pregnancy-related hormone imbalances might cause different types of dizziness sensations.
16) Motion sickness. Also known as travel sickness, car sickness or seasickness, motion sickness is characterized by dizziness, nausea, vomiting, sweating and fatigue. This is because there is an incompatibility between the sensory nerves of our inner ear and eyes. For example, when in a car or a boat, our inner ear senses the movement, but our eyes might not perceive it, hence the dizziness and sickness.
What to look out for
Dizziness is a rather common occurrence among adults as well as the elderly. Singular episodes are generally no reason for concern. Dizziness episodes may recur when brought on by fever, diarrhea, colds or flu, even allergies or motion sickness. However, when accompanied by more serious symptoms (anemia, fatigue, chest pain, shortness of breath, movement impairment, arrhythmia, changes in speech, vision loss and so on), a visit to the doctor is in order.
When to see a doctor? If you experience regular episodes of dizziness, it might be best to schedule an appointment with your doctor. If you faint or fall down, see a doctor as soon as possible. A medical professional will perform an examination to reveal the cause of your dizziness and propose a treatment plan. Lifestyle changes, medication or certain procedures are recommended, depending on the underlying cause of your dizziness. Generally, the symptoms are easily treatable and no reason for serious concern.