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The Language of Dizziness

Getting the Words Right so You Can Get the Help You Need

Beth Jennings, PT

Have you ever been dizzy? Sure you have. You likely spun round and round as a child, until tumbling to the floor giggling. Or maybe you felt dizzy when you had a sinus infection, or when you became dehydrated during a marathon. We’ve all had it at one time or another.
Now some dizziness is serious. Read more about when to speak to your doctor or go to the emergency room.
But no matter who you see for your dizziness, describing the symptoms can prove challenging. Getting the best evaluation starts with the information you provide. So let’s talk about the language of dizziness.

Which kind of dizziness do you have?

Dizziness is the easy, go-to word for all of it — lightheadedness, faintness, swaying-sensation, and spinning. Some people will even use it to mean unsteadiness. It’s a good place to start, but to healthcare providers, we want to know more. Here are some choices to consider:

  • Vertigo is a spinning, movement, or rocking sensation. You feel like you are moving, or the room around you is moving. Vertigo occurs when there is an error message between the brain and the portion of the inner ear used to detect balance. The word vertigo is sometimes used as a diagnosis, but it’s a pretty vague one. Like saying “pain” or “nausea.” Sure, it describes a problem, but not very well.
  • Lightheadedness is the feeling that you are floating or going to faint. You could become a little sweaty, or your vision may dim, but not always. This could be related to the inner ear, but it is more likely coming from your heart, lungs, blood vessels, a medication side effect, dehydration, or something else unrelated to the inner ear or balance system.
  • Unsteadiness is simply not feeling steady on your feet. Easy, right? But when it occurs at the same time as the symptoms you feel in your head, like vertigo or lightheadedness, it gets confusing. Decide if you only have unsteadiness or it’s with other symptoms that are likely making you unsteady.

More ways to describe your symptoms

Time-based descriptions:

  • When did they first start? Was the onset sudden and memorable, or was it gradual?
  • Are your symptoms constant or do they come in episodes? If in episodes, how long does one last?
  • How have they changed since they first started? Getting worse? Getting better?
    Situation-based descriptions:
  • What were you doing when they started, such as a specific movement or activity?
  • Did you recently have a head injury, illness, or surgery?
  • What makes your symptoms better? What makes them worse?
  • Do your symptoms get worse in crowds, in the dark, while watching TV, or riding in a car?

Other symptoms to consider

Dizziness could be your only symptom or with a collection of other symptoms. Think about what else might have started when your dizziness began.

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • New ear symptoms such as sudden hearing loss, ringing, or plugged feeling
  • New vision symptoms such as blurring or double vision
  • Confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, or muscle weakness in the face or limbs
  • Falling, near-falling, the fear of falling, or the feeling of being pulled in one direction

It’s OK if you don’t get it right

A good healthcare provider will walk you through all these questions and more, so don’t worry if you can’t remember everything. You might try writing down your symptoms in a notebook, your phone, or on this form.
Bookmark our website for more about dizziness from FYZICAL Physical Therapy & Balance Center - Forest Grove.

Beth Jennings, PT is a freelance health writer and has been a physical therapist for more than 20 years.