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"Ear crystals" and a drunk-like feeling: What you need to know about vertigo.

Spinning? Tilting? Dizziness? Feeling like everything is moving around you when it's... not? Welcome to the vertigo club, friends.

Heard of it before? For such a common condition, it's surprising how little we know about it. 

While you'd be forgiven for thinking it's just that feeling you get when you're slinking around a tall building and you're scared of heights, vertigo is actually a sign that there's something going on with your body's internal balancing system - specifically, your inner ear. 

Because, as it turns out, what's going on in your inner ear is actually very... very important. ¯\_ (ツ)_/¯ 

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While everyday vertigo is a 'normal' thing most people will experience (*insert staring at the computer screen too long and standing up suddenly*), chronic vertigo is something many people deal with on a regular basis - and it can have a pretty negative impact on your life. 

Like, it can make doing normal things really... s**t.

And while experts aren't sure exactly why, studies show that vestibular disorders generally appear to be more common in women than men - especially in the over 50 bracket. 

Coolcoolcool.

To find out more, we spoke to a GP and asked them everything you need to know about the condition, including what kind of symptoms are involved and how to deal with it.

What is vertigo?

"Vertigo is the sensation that the world is spinning. It is a symptom rather than a condition itself and has several causes," explains GP Dr Imaan Joshi.

It tends to occur in episodes or attacks and can last anywhere from seconds to hours or even days. 

While some attacks can be super mild - like a fleeting feeling that doesn't really put a dint in your day - it can also be more severe and end up having a really big impact on your daily activities.

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"Attacks may be of sudden onset or gradual," explains Dr Joshi. "They may last only a few seconds or longer."

"They may be so mild you barely notice it or so severe you’re unable to stand upright without losing balance and associated nausea and even vomiting," she says.

What causes vertigo?

Vertigo is not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal - it's a complex system with several causes. However, Dr Joshi said it's most commonly an issue with the way balance works in the inner ear. 

"Causes of vertigo may be due to benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), occasionally inner ear infections (labyrinthitis) and migraine headaches in some people," she explains.

There is usually a trigger for the attack - and it can be as simple as moving your head swiftly in a certain direction or standing up quickly.

We spoke to Katie, who recently suffered from sudden onset vertigo. 

"Mine was initially caused from... wait for it... parallel parking. I turned my head back to look over my shoulder (something I've done a million times before) and this one time it cooked me.

"I was furiously spinning, and I felt like the cars driving past me were crashing into me. I then lost sight briefly and honestly thought I was about to die - the whole world just didn't make sense and everything was upside down, spinning and then blacking out.

"Luckily, my partner was in the car with me and so he dragged me into the passenger's seat and drove me to the hospital while I was holding onto the car seat for dear life. I had no idea what was happening to me and it was really rather scary."

While it's not a direct cause, elevated levels of stress and anxiety can also contribute to vertigo and the dysfunction of your vestibular system. 

Take Nicolle, for example. After working in a high-stress work environment, she started developing dizziness and vertigo, before seeking professional help.

"I had one really bad episode of vertigo, about eight years ago when I was working in a very stressful role. I was at my desk upwards of 60 hours per week and had two screens. One day I felt so dizzy I walked into a column, when I sat down at my desk, it was as if my monitor was moving and flickering.

"I thought it was the light above my desk so I asked the building manager to take the globe out and when that didn't work, I started to get progressively worse. I went to a doctor on my way home and he diagnosed me with vertigo. The test was worse than the symptoms I was already experiencing. Thankfully, since my first episode (that lasted for six days), I have only had random bouts that last a day if I am really tired or run down."

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On Mamamia Out Loud, Jessie told listeners she experienced new-onset vertigo.

"I had chronic vertigo could barely stand up, nausea, dizziness. It was scary, and I was staring to really panic, because I felt like this was just my life now," she said.

Listen: Jessie Stephens talks about her vertigo experience on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.

"Vertigo gives you incredible anxiety - so you start to really psych yourself out. I had no idea how debilitating it was - you can't do anything. Looking at screens, looking at sunlight, standing up."

While it's less common, Dr Joshi said it can also be the result of problems in parts of the brain due to strokes and tumours, "as well as inflammation of the vestibular nerve that passes through the inner ear".

So, what does vertigo feel like?

If you're experiencing vertigo, you might experience a number of different symptoms outside of dizziness and a loss of balance. 

As mentioned, Dr Imaan said it's also associated with nausea and even vomiting. You might also experience problems with focusing eyesight, ringing in the ears (tinnitus) and progressive hearing loss.

Speaking with Mamamia, Simon, who has struggled with vertigo on and off for 10 years, said his symptoms usually start upon waking. 

"I wake up and find that I am very lightheaded and dizzy when I sit up from bed, sometimes stumbling as I find my feet," he said.

"As I have a treatment, I use this on waking when symptoms occur and this provides immediate relief. Reduced symptoms usually come back the next morning, when I look up or sideways too quickly or when I have my eyes shut for extended periods. Symptoms usually last for two to five days."

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Katie said she also experiences similar symptoms - spinning surroundings, completely losing balance and unable to focus her eyes.

"I do my manoeuvres and then lie flat for as long as possible with my eyes closed. If it hasn't fixed itself four hours after the initial spin, then I go to hospital and they pump me with fluids and throw me around to shake my ear crystals."

Wait - what do ear crystals have to do with vertigo?

Yes! Loose ear crystals! Sounds 100 per cent like a fake thing - but it's real!

Apparently tiny ear crystals can get dislodged from a branch in your inner ear, which causes a whole lot of havoc - because basically these ear crystals are responsible for helping us know where our head is at. Which is... important.

"The most common type of vertigo is due to BPPV - when crystals or calcium get loose and move elsewhere within the inner ear, upsetting the delicate balancing mechanism and causing symptoms," explains Dr Joshi.

How crazy is that?

"They usually dissolve within weeks but that’s not to say you’ll feel symptoms that long."

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Jessie said, "I ended up at the hospital because I panicked and thought something was really wrong. It was discovered that it was peripheral and therefore it was to do with the inner ears and... crystals."

While dizziness due to loose crystals in your ears may sound extremely weird and wishy-washy, it's a pretty serious health issue that can require medical intervention. 

How do you treat vertigo?

Luckily, those loose ear crystals can be treated - it just involves some whacky-sounding manoeuvres. 

Jessie said, "I ended up at the physio and they did a bunch of manoeuvres and I felt a little better after going a few times. Basically, it's like rattling you and trying to get money out [of your ears] - that's what they're trying to do, get your ear crystals in the right place."

Sounds 10/10 weird, but doctors regularly recommend these kinds of head positioning techniques if you are suffering from recurrent BPPV and have recurring dizziness and balance problems. 

Dr Joshi said people dealing with vertigo will usually benefit from a series of exercises, called vestibular retraining.

One such exercise is the Brandt-Daroff exercise.

"This exercise almost magically reduced the symptoms to barely noticeable. This is because the exercise moves the calcium carbonate crystals in the inner ear around to their normal position, relieving the dizzy feeling," said Simon.

"During the exercise, I do experience increased dizziness and sweating, but afterwards, the symptoms are significantly reduced and sometimes are gone," he adds.

While an occasional bout of vertigo is usually nothing to be concerned about, if it's something that's severe and occurs regularly, it's important to speak with a health professional - as this may affect your daily life.

"Most cases settle within hours on their own. If it doesn’t, seek a doctor’s opinion - they can have a look to exclude infection or, depending on your medical history, other more serious causes," suggests Dr Joshi.

"Assuming there’s nothing sinister going on, it’s important to go easy while you have symptoms."

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Dr Joshi suggests:

- Be careful with movements and avoid sudden movements of the head that may worsen the vertigo 

- Sleep with head slightly elevated 

- Avoid bending down if you know that makes the symptoms worse 

- Avoid craning your neck 

- If you've already been run through them, do the exercises your doctor has taught you to help you adjust and reduce the symptoms (such as the Epley manoeuvre).

Katie said, "It sucks that you're three times more likely to get vertigo as a woman - it feels like another bung end of the deal for us gals. It's also infuriating that there's no medication or 'cure' as such, but just ways to try to keep it at bay and chill it out when it's happening to you."

"I just wish I'd known more about it before it happened to me, so I wouldn't have been as terrified when it hit me."

Have you ever experienced vertigo before? What's your go-to treatment? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature image: Getty

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