Dizzy Signals: Getting Rid of Dizziness

Dizziness is a common symptom that can be tough to diagnose and hard to shake. We help you get out of the spin cycle.
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Rule Out the Obvious

It hit Patty Ford out of the blue one day while he was at work. Ford, then 31 and a busy Washington, D.C., lawyer, felt a whirling sensation, as if she were on a merry-go-round. "I was suddenly very unsteady," she recalls. "I thought I might fall off my chair. It was scary -- I was afraid I was having a stroke."

The feeling didn't go away even when she lay down and closed her eyes. Her internist diagnosed an ear infection. When the treatment didn't work, he referred her to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT), who in turn recommended a neurologist. "After he ran a couple of tests, that doctor strongly suggested it was psychosomatic," she remembers.

Ford, now 45, didn't buy it: "I never had any doubt there was something physically wrong. I was unsteady on my feet. I felt unsafe driving. It was very frustrating and upsetting."

Dizziness is a common symptom and, often, a baffling one for both patients and doctors. In 2006 Americans made an estimated 7.8 million visits to doctors, emergency rooms, and hospital outpatient clinics because of dizziness. Women accounted for about 60 percent of those visits, but all of us, male and female, are more likely to feel dizzy as we get older. The causes can be as simple as standing up too quickly or using a new medication, but sometimes dizziness can signal a more serious disorder. We asked the experts what to do if your world suddenly tilts off kilter.

Occasional dizziness strikes almost all of us at some point and it's usually not a big deal. "Everyone can get it, particularly if your blood pressure is on the low side," says Robert Baloh, MD, director of the Neuro-Otology Program at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. "When you jump up after sitting for a long time, your heart has to pump a lot of blood uphill. There can be a momentary decrease in blood flow to your brain as a result."

If you're dizzy and are sick with a cold or the flu, your illness is the most likely explanation. If not, consider, for starters, what you've eaten -- or haven't -- that day. "People have two doughnuts for breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and can't understand why they're light-headed afterward," says Richard Gans, PhD, executive director of the American Institute of Balance, in Largo, Florida. "It's because their blood sugar levels are crashing after the sudden spike." Think about your fluid intake as well: If you're dehydrated, your blood pressure can fall, which may leave you dazed.

Taking a new medication is a common culprit, too. Dizziness is the first- or second-listed side effect for many drugs. "We ask patients when the dizziness started and often it turns out to be after they changed prescriptions or began taking an over-the-counter drug, or even a supplement," says Dr. Gans. "They just didn't put the two together." Even a change in eyeglass prescription can throw you off balance.

Continued on page 2:  Call Your Doctor


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