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5 things you need to know about vertigo

Vertigo is enough to make your head spin. But it's not the only thing that can literally throw people off balance. Here's what you need to know:

1. VERTIGO CAN BE A SIGN OF SERIOUS TROUBLE

Vertigo isn't a feeling of lightheadedness or faintness, said Dr. Ronald Kanner, chairman of the neurology department at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine in Hempstead. Instead, it's "the sensation of abnormal movement in the environment or the environment moving around the patient," he said. "Most commonly, it is described as a spinning sensation. However, it can take the form of floating or imbalance."

People should seek immediate medical attention if vertigo appears along with other symptoms, such as facial weakness, slurred speech, weakness of an arm or leg, alteration in level of consciousness or the inability to walk or talk, Kanner said.

2. TREATMENT DIFFERS, DEPENDING ON CAUSE

Often, people have what's called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, the condition occurs when a calcium particle breaks free and floats within the tube of the inner ear, disrupting that organ's messages to the brain on balance.

A physician may be able to cure this condition by performing an Epley maneuver that's designed to move the crystals in the ear by rapidly repositioning the head, Kanner said. (Patients can also learn how to do the maneuver at home.) This allows the ear's normal balance mechanism to kick in.

In other cases, people with vertigo may be given a drug called Antivert (meclizine) or water pills designed to adjust the levels of liquid in the body, said Dr. Daniel H. Cohen, chief of neurology at Good Samaritan Medical Center in West Islip.

3. BALANCE PROBLEMS CAN STEM FROM A VARIETY OF FACTORS

Migraine headaches, a condition called Meniere's disease, low blood pressure and low blood sugar can all lead to balance problems -- an inability to feel steady while standing or moving. Other potential causes include medication side effects, diabetes, anemia and head injury.

Besides medication, treatments for balance disorders can include physical therapy, diet changes and, in rare cases, surgery. "The prognosis depends entirely on the cause," Kanner said.

4. DRUGS ARE AVAILABLE FOR MOTION SICKNESS

Cohen said that motion sickness -- the kind people get on boats, for instance -- can be treated with patches that you put behind your ears. They're good for short-term use, he said. However, the patches can cause drowsiness. "I wouldn't take them for the first time and plan to go out driving," he said.

5. MOTION SICKNESS CAN OFTEN BE PREVENTED

If you feel queasy when traveling on a boat, say, or in a car on a winding road, there are things you can do. Cohen suggested looking off into the distance and trying to focus on something. "Try not to move your head or your eyes," he said. By doing this, you can prevent your body's internal balance system from becoming confused.

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