Partner Series
What Is Vertigo?
Vertigo is not a fear of heights, contrary to popular opinion.
Credit: Deklofenak | Shutterstock.com

Immortalized by the famous 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, "vertigo" is a frequently misused term in real life.

Many people mistakenly say "vertigo" when they mean fear of heights or simple dizziness. But in medical circles, vertigo refers specifically to a false sensation of movement, usually caused by inner-ear problems (the inner ear helps to regulate balance).

Vertigo most often strikes the elderly and is experienced by women more than men.

Impress your doctor by using "acrophobia," not vertigo, to describe a fear of heights. The two conditions can interact, as being at a high altitude can trigger vertigo — looking down from a high perch, or gazing up at a tall object, can cause the swirling sensations of vertigo. And those vertiginous feelings can contribute to a fear of heights.

But many other types of movement (such as walking) or changes in visual perspective (gazing out a car window, for instance) can also cause vertigo.

And vertigo is not the same as simple dizziness, or the fleeting feeling of lightheadedness when you stand up too quickly. Vertigo, by contrast, involves persistent feelings of swirling, or a tilting motion in a stationary person. Vomiting and nausea frequently accompany vertigo. The sensation of movement can be objective (objects around you move) or subjective (you are physically moving).

Though problems in the brain can sometimes cause vertigo, the condition usually results from one of several inner-ear disorders. In benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, crystals in the inner ear break off and sensitize the wrong part of the ear. Another condition, called Meniere's disease, often produces excessive fluid in the inner ear that can cause vertigo, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and loss of hearing.

In vestibular neuritis, a viral or bacterial infection inflames the inner ear and can cause sudden vertigo. Migraines, head injuries, long-term ear infections and other ear problems can also result in vertigo.

Treatment for vertigo depends on the cause, and can vary from prescribed head movements to medication or surgery.

Follow Michael Dhar @mid1980. Follow LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.