Vertigo Isn’t a Diagnosis — It’s a Symptom
The condition has a dizzying number of causes
In the fall of 2017, Sara Morgan tried to get out of bed, and the whole room spun around her. “I collapsed and was totally unable to get up,” she says. “I freaked out and called an ambulance and had to be carried out on a stretcher.”
Morgan was experiencing an extreme bout of vertigo, a condition that nearly 40% of adults will have at some point in their lives at varying degrees of severity. It’s slightly more common in women than men and most prevalent in people over 50, but vertigo can happen at any age: Morgan was only 24.
For two weeks, Morgan, who lives in New York City, experienced constant whirling every time she moved her head or eyes. “I couldn’t drive, couldn’t look at a screen,” she says. “I couldn’t exercise and could barely work. The basic acts of taking care of myself, like going to the grocery store, were almost impossible. My mom and my roommate at the time would have to practically feed me. I couldn’t move my head to look down at a plate.”
It took about a month for Morgan’s symptoms to fade completely, during which time she saw a number of specialists who ran test after test. Eventually, doctors told her they believed a virus had affected her inner ear, causing her vertigo symptoms, and they expected it wouldn’t happen again.
What exactly is vertigo?
For most people, vertigo feels like a sudden spinning sensation, and the symptoms only last a few seconds or only happen when they move their heads or bodies a certain way.
“Vertigo is not a diagnosis; it is a symptom,” explains Sherrie Davis, director of audiology and the Dizziness and Balance Center at Penn Medicine. “It means experiencing a false sense of motion. For some, that could mean a true whirling or spinning sensation. For others, it could be rocking and sliding. It’s a sense of moving when one is not.”
It can be a symptom of a long list of diseases and conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, migraines, diabetes, and even pregnancy. There are both neurological causes and physiological ones. In rarer cases like Morgan’s, vertigo symptoms can be constant and prolonged.