What causes vertigo?

There are two main types of vertigo, peripheral vertigo and central vertigo. Peripheral vertigo occurs as the result of a problem with the vestibular system, which includes the inner ear and vestibular nerve and controls balance. Central vertigo is the result of a problem related to the brain. In some cases, there is no known cause of vertigo.

Causes of peripheral vertigo

Conditions, damage and diseases affecting to the inner ear and vestibular nerve causing peripheral vertigo include:

  • Acoustic neuroma (benign tumor of the acoustic nerve)
  • Benign positional vertigo (vertigo that occurs only in certain head positions)
  • Ear infection
  • Head injury
  • Labyrinthitis (infection or inflammation of the inner ear)
  • Meniere’s disease (disorder of the inner ear characterized by vertigo and ringing in the ears)
  • Motion sickness
  • Perilymphatic fistula (leakage of fluid from the inner ear to the middle ear)
  • Medication side effects
  • Tumors
  • Vestibular neuronitis (inflammation of the vestibular nerve)

Causes of central vertigo

Vertigo can also be caused by conditions, damage and diseases affecting the brain including:

  • Brain injury
  • Migraine
  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord causing weakness, coordination, balance difficulties, and other problems)
  • Side effects of medications or drugs, including alcohol, anticonvulsants and aspirin

Serious or life-threatening causes of vertigo

In some cases, vertigo may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. These include:

  • Brain tumor
  • Traumatic brain injury

Questions for diagnosing the cause of vertigo

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your vertigo including:

  • How long have you felt the symptoms of vertigo?
  • Do you feel lightheaded or faint?
  • Do you feel as if the room is spinning or moving?
  • Have you ever lost your balance or fallen since your vertigo symptoms began?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • Have you experienced an injury or trauma to the head or neck?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of vertigo?

Because vertigo can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Brain damage
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Nerve problems that cause pain, numbness or tingling
  • Paralysis
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Permanent loss of sensation
  • Spread of cancer
  • Spread of infection
  • Unconsciousness and coma


Balance disorders. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. http://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/balance/balance_disorders.asp. Accessed May 3, 2011.

Vertigo-associated disorders. PubMed Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001432.htm. Accessed May 3, 2011.


What is vertigo?

Vertigo is a symptom in which you feel as if you are moving, spinning or floating, even if you are stationary. Vertigo is often accompanied by other symptoms, such as dizziness, impaired balance, lightheadedness, and nausea. It is estimated that four out of ten Americans may have an episode of vertigo and seek medical a... Read more about vertigointroduction


What other symptoms might occur with vertigo?

Vertigo may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the vestibular system may also involve other body systems.... Read more about vertigosymptoms

Medical Reviewer: All content has been reviewed by board-certified physicians under the direction of Rich Klasco, M.D., FACEP. Last Annual Review Date: May 2, 2011 Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Brain and Nerves