Head Spinning (Vertigo) – What Causes It?

Head spinning is a common complaint in medicine. The main problem with head spinning is actually its definition: People often confuse it with dizziness. When someone comes to the doctor complaining “I feel dizzy”, it usually means one of two thing

s: Either they feel their head is spinning, or they feel they are about to faint.

In this article we’ll cover the first option – head spinning, or in medicine “vertigo”. When you have vertigo you feel as if you are spinning or the world is spinning around you, when there is no actual movement.


Vertigo. You feel as if the world is spinning. Photo by Melle_Oh.

Why is vertigo caused?

3 systems are responsible for our body’s balance:

  1. The eyes – For example, if you don’t see where you’re going, you will fall.
  2. The somatosensory system – That’s a complicated name, but what it means is that our skin, joints and muscles are constantly sending information to our brain telling it where we are in space.
  3. The ears – Our ears have two main parts: The one responsible for hearing, and the one responsible for balance.

Vertigo is usually caused by a problem in the part of our ear responsible for balance (that part is called the vestibular system).


Our ear from the inside (the inner ear). This part is responsible for our balance, and for vertigo.

What are the causes?

A bunch of diseases can cause vertigo, but it can also occur to normal people:

  1. Seasickness – We mentioned above that 3 systems in our body tell it where we are in space. Sometimes these systems send different messages to the brain, getting it “confused” – such as when we’re at sea. When we’re at sea, our inner ear will feel the movement from the waves. At the same time, our eyes will tell the brain we’re not moving (since we’re just sitting in our cabin). This confusion leads to seasickness (also called motion sickness).This mismatch between our systems also explains why we have carsickness, fear of heights, and the vertigo some people feel when watching chase scenes in a movie.
  2. Unusual neck or head positions – Such as when we paint a ceiling – our necks would be extremely extended, a position to which we are not used.
  3. Following a spin – Ever tried to spin on a spinning chair? Most likely after that spin you felt as if the world was spinning around you.

As mentioned above, there are also diseases which cause vertigo:

  1. Problems in our inner ear
    a. Meniere’s Disease – This is a condition in which there is a problem with the fluid inside our inner ear. This causes vertigo, ear ringing and hearing loss.
    b. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – In this condition brief vertigo spells that come and go are caused by changes in the position of the head.
    c. Labyrinthitis – This is caused when there is inflammation inside our inner ear. It’s mostly caused by a virus.
  2. Migraine headaches – About 25% of people with migraines have some sort of “dizziness”, which can sometimes manifest as vertigo.
  3. Stroke – Stroke happens when the blood supply to the brain is disturbed. When the blood supply to the area of the inner ear and our brainstem is disturbed, vertigo can occur. This is a life-threatening situation.

There are other diseases which can cause vertigo, but these are the most common ones.

In the future we will cover each disease mentioned here, so you can return to this page or bookmark it to learn about each of them.

Ever experienced vertigo yourself? Let us know in the comments.