Dizziness is an imprecise symptom used to describe a variety of sensations that include vertigo, light-headedness, faintness, and imbalance. When used to describe a sense of spinning or other motion, dizziness is designated as vertigo. Vertigo may be physiologic, occurring during or after a sustained head rotation, or it may be pathologic, due to vestibular dysfunction. The term light-headedness is commonly applied to presyncopal sensations due to brain hypoperfusion but also may refer to disequilibrium and imbalance. A challenge to diagnosis is that patients often have difficulty distinguishing among these various symptoms, and the words they choose do not reliably indicate the underlying etiology.
There are a number of potential causes of dizziness. Vascular disorders cause presyncopal dizziness as a result of cardiac dysrhythmia, orthostatic hypotension, medication effects, or other causes. Such presyncopal sensations vary in duration; they may increase in severity until loss of consciousness occurs, or they may resolve before loss of consciousness if the cerebral ischemia is corrected. Faintness and syncope, which are discussed in detail in Chap. 11, should always be considered when one is evaluating patients with brief episodes of dizziness or dizziness that occurs with upright posture.
Vestibular causes of dizziness (vertigo or imbalance) may be due to peripheral lesions that affect the labyrinths or vestibular nerves or to involvement of the central vestibular pathways. They may be paroxysmal or due to a fixed unilateral or bilateral vestibular deficit. Acute unilateral lesions cause vertigo due to a sudden imbalance in vestibular inputs from the two labyrinths. Bilateral lesions cause imbalance and instability of vision (oscillopsia) when the head moves. Other causes of dizziness include nonvestibular imbalance and gait disorders (e.g., loss of proprioception from sensory neuropathy, parkinsonism) and anxiety.
When evaluating patients with dizziness, questions to consider include the following: (1) Is it dangerous (e.g., arrhythmia, transient ischemic attack/stroke)? (2) Is it vestibular? (3) If vestibular, is it peripheral or central? A careful history and examination often provide sufficient information to answer these questions and determine whether additional studies or referral to a specialist is necessary.
APPROACH TO THE PATIENT: Dizziness HISTORY
When a patient presents with dizziness, the first step is to delineate more precisely the nature of the symptom. In the case of vestibular disorders, the physical symptoms depend on whether the lesion is unilateral or bilateral, and whether it is acute or chronic and progressive. Vertigo, an illusion of self or environmental motion, implies asymmetry of vestibular inputs from the two labyrinths or in their central pathways that is usually acute. Symmetric bilateral vestibular hypofunction causes imbalance but no vertigo. Because of the ambiguity in patients’ descriptions of their symptoms, diagnosis based simply on symptom characteristics is typically unreliable. The history should focus closely on other features, including whether this is the first attack, the duration of this and any ...