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Motion Sickness, Dizziness and Vertigo

January 22, 2015 | Category: Balance and Dizziness

Every year, over two million people visit a doctor or specialist for dizziness. This does not take into consideration those that simply don’t go or suffer from regular bouts of “motion sickness”, which is the most common medical problem associated with travel. This is meant as a guide to help understand the differences as well as some things you can do.

What Is Motion Sickness and Seasickness?

Motion sickness is typically a minor annoyance and does not signify a major medical problem or illness, but some travelers are incapacitated by the symptoms, even experiencing problems for a few days after the trip. Even though motion sickness and seasickness are caused by different motions (flights, cars or amusement park rides versus boats or ships), they are the same disorder.

What Is Dizziness?

Dizziness is different in that there can be a component of motion sickness but it is typically described as feeling dizzy, lightheaded, unsteady or even giddy. This feeling of imbalance (or dysequilibrium) that lacks a sensation of the room spinning or turning is sometimes due to a problem with the inner ear.

What Is Vertigo?

What separates vertigo from dizziness is that it is often described as the room or surroundings turning or spinning. The term “vertigo” is directly from the Latin verb “to turn”. This can be a crippling experience depending on the severity of the sensations. Vertigo is frequently caused by an inner ear problem.

Understanding Balance

All three of the mentioned sensations – motion sickness, dizziness and vertigo – relate to the sense of balance and equilibrium in varying degrees. Research in space and aeronautical medicine call this sense “spatial orientation” because it tells your brain where the body is in it’s relative space (such as where you are facing, moving or if you are turning or standing still).

Our sense of balance is maintained by a complexity of our nervous system:

  • The inner ears (also called the labyrinth), which monitor the directions of motion, such as turning, or forward-backward, side-to-side, and up-and-down motions.
  • The eyes, which monitor where the body is in space (i.e. upside down, rightside up, etc.) and also directions of motion.
  • The skin pressure receptors such as in the joints and spine, which tell what part of the body is down and touching the ground.
  • The muscle and joint sensory receptors, which tell what parts of the body are moving.
  • The central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord), which processes all the bits of information from the four other systems to make some coordinated sense out of it all.

The symptoms of motion sickness and dizziness appear when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the other four systems.

A common example of how this works might be: imagine reading a book while sitting in the back seat of a moving car. Your inner ears and skin receptors detect the motion of travel while your eyes only have the stationary context of the book pages. In this instance the brain is receiving conflicting messages and then you become car sick.

In an example that is an actual medical condition, someone that suffers inner ear damage from an injury or infection no longer receives the same signals that are being sent by the healthy inner ear. The conflicting signals in this example may cause a sensation of rotation that would generate a feeling that the room is spinning.

The Medical Conditions That Cause Dizziness or Vertigo


If the brain does not receive enough blood flow, you can feel light headed. Nearly everyone has experienced sitting up too quickly. But for some people this feeling of light headedness is frequent or chronic. This could be caused by arteriosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, and it is commonly seen in patients who have high blood pressure, diabetes, or high levels of blood fats (cholesterol). It is sometimes seen in patients with inadequate cardiac (heart) function or with anemia.

Some drugs also decrease the blood flow to the brain, especially stimulants such as caffeine or nicotine. Excess salt in the diet may also lead to poor circulation. It can also be impaired by spasms in the arteries caused by emotional stress, anxiety, and tension.

If the inner ear does not receive enough blood flow, you may experience something closer to vertigo. This is because the inner ear is extremely sensitive to minor alterations in blood flow.


Head trauma or an injury such as a skull fracture that damages the inner ear can produce a profound sense of incapacitating vertigo that may also be paired with nausea or hearing loss. The dizziness that follows this kind of dramatic injury can last for several weeks and then slowly improve as the normal undamaged side takes over.


Viruses even as common as those that cause colds or the flu can attack the inner ear along with it’s nerve connections to the brain. It can result in vertigo while hearing is unaffected. A bacterial infection, such as mastoiditis, that extends into the inner ear will completely destroy both the hearing and the equilibrium function of that ear. The severity of dizziness and recovery time will be similar to that of skull fracture.


Some people experience dizziness and/or vertigo attacks when they are exposed to foods or airborne particles (such as dust, molds, pollens, danders, etc.) to which they are allergic.


There are a number of diseases that affect the nerves such as multiple sclerosis, syphilis, tumors. These are uncommon causes of balance disorders, but a thorough physician should consider these during examinations.

What Can Carlson ENT Do About My Dizziness or Vertigo?

Our doctors will begin a thorough process of identifying your dizziness or vertigo symptoms, from light headedness to your precise sensations of motion. This includes a history of your symptoms in whatever form, duration of symptoms, associated symptoms of hearing loss or nausea and various other probing questions to find symptomatic correlations. This would also include questions about your general health, medications, past injuries, recent infections or any other normal questions a physician would ask to understand your health.

The physician will examine your ears, nose, and throat and begin tests of nerve and balance function. Because the inner ear controls both balance and hearing, disorders of balance often affect hearing and vice versa. Therefore, your physician will probably recommend hearing tests (audiograms). The physician might order skull X rays, a CT or MRI scan of your head, or special tests of eye motion after warm or cold water is used to stimulate the inner ear (ENG – electronystagmography). In some cases, blood tests or a cardiology (heart) evaluation might be recommended.

Not every patient will require every test. The physician’s judgement will be based on each particular patient. Similarly, the treatments recommended by your physician will depend on the diagnosis.

Carlson ENT is Tucson’s foremost authority on vertigo and dizziness treatment. Our physicians are highly specialized to help in these particularly difficult to treat disorders. We have extremely high success rates and value the health and recovery of every patient.

General Help to Reduce Dizziness

  • Avoid rapid changes in position, especially from lying down to standing up or turning around from one side to the other.
  • Avoid extremes of head motion (especially looking up) or rapid head motion (especially turning or twisting).
  • Eliminate or decrease use of products that impair circulation, e.g. nicotine, caffeine, and salt.
  • Minimize your exposure to circumstances that precipitate your dizziness, such as stress and anxiety or substances to which you are allergic.
  • Avoid hazardous activities when you are dizzy, such as driving an car or operating dangerous equipment, climbing a step ladder, etc.

How I Can I Help Motion Sickness?

The best tip if you suffer from basic motion sickness is always ride where your eyes will see the same motion that your body and inner ears feel. For example, sitting in the front seat of the car while looking at distant scenery or being on the deck of a ship viewing the horizon.

  • Do not read while traveling if you are subject to motion sickness, and do not sit in a seat facing backward.
  • Do not watch or talk to another traveler who is having motion sickness.
  • Avoid strong odors and spicy or greasy foods immediately before and during your travel. Medical research has not yet investigated the effectiveness of popular folk remedies such as soda crackers and & Seven Up® or cola syrup over ice.
  • Take one of the varieties of motion sickness medicinesbefore your travel begins, as recommended by your physician. Some of these medications can be purchased without a prescription (i.e., Dramamine®, Bonine®, Marezine®, etc.)