Common Conditions

What causes dizziness?

A dizzy spell can be unnerving, but with a little detective work, your doctor may be able to find the cause. We look at what it is and common causes.

Bonnie Bayley
January 2019

Dizziness is often described as a sense of light-headedness or feeling faint, woozy, weak or unsteady.

It can also make you feel like you’re spinning or the room is moving around you – this could be a type of dizziness known as vertigo.

While dizziness rarely points to a serious disorder, it can be challenging and frustrating, particularly if your dizzy spells are severe or you have symptoms like nausea or ringing in the ears too.

What’s going on in my body when I feel dizzy?

“Our central balance comes from multiple parts of the body; the eyes, inner ear, muscles and skeletal system, so any number of things that affect those systems can cause dizziness,” explains Dr Abhi Verma, Royal Australian College of General Practitioners spokesperson and GP.

We do know that with vertigo tiny calcium carbonate crystals within the inner ear move out of position. This activates nerve cells that tell the brain your head’s moving, when it’s not. Causes can include head injury or inner ear problems (see below).

What conditions can cause dizziness?

There are many possible causes, including dehydration, hypotension (low blood pressure), anaemia, anxiety, pregnancy, heart problems (such as cardiac arrhythmias), head injury and neurological disorders like migraine.

Disorders of the inner ear, including benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), Meniere’s disease and vestibular neuritis account for about half of all cases of persistent dizziness, reports Better Health Victoria.

“BPPV is probably the most common cause of dizziness that we see, although hypotension is also fairly common,” says Dr Verma. 

You may find you’re more prone to dizziness as you get older – this could be down to a medical condition or a side effect of medication.

When should I seek help?

If dizziness is prolonged, recurrent, severe or comes with symptoms like ringing ears, headaches or vomiting, see your GP.

If necessary, they can organise a neurological examination, blood tests or brain imaging. They can also refer you to specialists like a neurologist, ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist or physiotherapist.

What treatments are available?

Dizziness often improves by itself, but if you need treatment, it’ll depend on the underlying cause and your symptoms. Medications, dietary changes or other exercises may be part of a treatment plan.

“For example, BPPV responds favourably to the Epley manoeuvre [a series of exercises that help reposition ‘crystals’ in the ear], whereas there’s no cure for Meniere’s disease, it needs to be managed long-term by an ENT,” says Professor Dr Margie Sharpe, director of the Dizziness & Balance Disorders Centre.

“If you’re finding it difficult to get answers, the best thing to do is see a vestibular physiotherapist,” suggests Sharpe. The physio will work on balancing exercises. You don’t need a referral, though your doctor may be able to help you find one.

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