If you’ve ever had vertigo, you’re well aware of how disturbing it can be. At some point in their lives, about 40 million people will seek medical care for vertigo, and vertigo-related symptoms bring an estimated 3-5% of people to the emergency room each year. Vertigo can be related to other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headaches, tinnitus, and balance problems.
Vertigo is the sensation that the room is spinning around you, even though it’s not. It should not be confused with dizziness, in which you may feel like you’re spinning, feeling lightheaded, or a fear of heights.
Vertigo tends to develop in older adults, and is considered to be a symptom, not an illness. Vertigo is caused by an imbalance of some kind in the sensory pathways of your inner ear or your brain. Your balance is a complicated process, and is based on your vision, vestibular system (your inner ear), and proprioception, which is how your muscles and joints know where you are in space. These three systems are coordinated by your brain, but when one of them is affected, your balance is thrown off, causing vertigo.
There are a number of underlying causes of vertigo. One of the most common is a condition called Benign Positional Vertigo (BPV), in which small crystals in your inner ear become misplaced. BPV is not serious, it comes and goes, and symptoms are triggered by the position of your head. However, vertigo may also be caused by certain medications, a virus, a tumor, anxiety, or stress. For some people, the origin of their vertigo may be unknown.
Treatments for vertigo depend on the underlying cause, if known. For BPV, a rolling sequence called an Epley Maneuver can help reposition the wayward crystals and relieve your symptoms. Your doctor may adjust any prescriptions that may be causing vertigo, treat your anxiety, or prescribe medications to desensitize your inner ear or to reduce nausea.
Vertigo can be a very frustrating condition. You may have one episode, or it may last off and on for years. Your symptoms may last for seconds or keep you flat on your back for days at a time. In some instances it can be easy to treat, and in others, vertigo can be very persistent. For that reason, many patients who are struggling with vertigo turn to acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
Research on treating vertigo with acupuncture is promising. In one 2015 study, researchers analyzing the effectiveness of acupuncture on patients with vertigo in the emergency room found a significant and immediate effect in reducing symptoms. How acupuncture works for vertigo isn’t completely clear, but scientists have found that it increases blood flow to the vertebral artery at the base of the brain. In addition, acupuncture alters brain chemistry to increase the circulation of neurotransmitters that reduce pain, relieve stress, and moderate mood.
If you seek out a practitioner of acupuncture and Chinese medicine for your vertigo, they will likely combine acupuncture with other treatment strategies, based on your health history and specific symptoms. In many cases, vertigo is seen as a condition of depletion or physical exhaustion, which respond well to herbal, dietary, stress reduction, and other lifestyle approaches.
As frustrating and disturbing as vertigo can be, in most cases it can be treated. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can play a role in reducing your symptoms, alleviating stress and anxiety associated with vertigo, and help restore your depleted body to support the healing process.
Ni Nan Gilbert is a licensed New York acupuncturist with certification in Chinese herbology. She has been practicing traditional Chinese medicine in the United States since 1997, and is the founder of Ni Nan Healing Art Center in Bellmore, NY.