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Dealing with the Spins: Dizziness & Vertigo in Multiple Sclerosis

Understand why MS can cause dizziness and what you can do about it.

Multiple Sclerosis 101

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an immune system disease that affects the central nervous system. In MS, inflammation damages myelin, the protective covering around nerve cells. The resulting scar tissue (lesions) interferes with nerve signal transmission.

Symptoms of MS include vision problems, numbness of the limbs, and balance issues. The exact cause of MS is unknown and there is no cure, but disease-modifying medications may delay progression. Other treatments address particular symptoms. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 2.5 million people around the world have MS.

Dizziness and vertigo are often early symptoms of MS. Read on to learn more about these symptoms as they relate to MS.

Learn the typical progression of MS and what to expect »

Dizziness and Vertigo in MS

Many people with MS experience episodes of dizziness, lightheadedness, or feeling a bit off balance. Some also have episodes of vertigo. Vertigo is the false sensation of whirling or spinning. Dizziness and vertigo contribute to balance problems, which are common in MS patients.

Ongoing dizziness and vertigo can interfere with the performance of daily tasks, increase the risk of falls, and can even become disabling.

What Vertigo Feels Like

Vertigo is an intense sensation of spinning — similar to what you feel on a twirling amusement park ride — even if you’re not moving. The first time you experience can be very unsettling, even frightening.

Vertigo may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. It can continue for hours, or even days. Sometimes, dizziness and vertigo are accompanied by visual disturbances, tinnitus or hearing loss, and difficulty standing or walking.

Causes of Dizziness and Vertigo in MS

The lesions that result from MS make it difficult for nerves within the central nervous system to send messages to the rest of the body. Symptoms of MS vary according to the location of the lesions. A lesion or lesions in the brain stem or cerebellum, the area of the brain that controls balance, may cause vertigo. According to a report out of the University of Texas, about 20 percent of MS patients experience vertigo.

Self-Help Measures

When vertigo occurs, sit down until it passes. Avoid moving your head or body position. Tone down bright lights and don’t try to read. Avoid stairs and don’t attempt to drive until you’re sure the vertigo has passed. Begin moving very slowly when you feel better.

When vertigo strikes during the night, sit up straight, turn on soft lighting, and remain still until you feel better. Vertigo may return when you turn the light off and lie down. A comfortable recliner may help.

Talk to Your Doctor

Tell your doctor if you have MS and experience frequent bouts of dizziness or vertigo. Vertigo can be a symptom of a problem with the inner ear. Other possible causes of dizziness or vertigo include certain medications, blood vessel disease, migraine, tumors, and stroke. Once other causes have been ruled out, your doctor can advise you on the best way to deal with symptoms.

Treatment for Dizziness and Vertigo

Over-the-counter (OTC) anti-motion sickness medications may be all you need. These are available as oral tablets or as skin patches. If dizziness or vertigo becomes chronic, your doctor may prescribe more powerful anti-motion sickness or anti-nausea medications.

In cases of severe vertigo, a short course of corticosteroids may be recommended. Some patients are able to improve balance and coordination with physical therapy.

Risks of Dizziness and Vertigo

The balance issues caused by dizziness and vertigo can increase the risk of injury due to falls. This is especially true for people whose symptoms include trouble walking, weakness, and fatigue. A few safety measures around the home can help reduce this risk:

  • Clear your home of tripping hazards.
  • Use a cane or a walker.
  • Install handrails and grab bars.
  • Use a shower chair.

Most importantly, you should sit down when you feel dizzy.

Read Video Transcript »

Break It Down: Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a condition that affects approximately 400,000 Americans. Thankfully, the majority of people with MS have the same life expectancy as persons without the condition. However, they can have a variety of manifestations that impact their quality of life.

MS is an autoimmune disorder that affects the central nervous system, including the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord.

Multiple sclerosis causes an attack on myelin, a substance that enables signal transmission along the nerves. Scar tissue creates gaps in functional myelin. This affects how messages are transmitted within the brain or along the nerves.

This scarring, or sclerosis, can manifest in different ways, and these effects can change over time, so there may not be a constant pattern of symptoms with MS. The most common symptoms are numbness and tingling in hands and feet, vision problems, poor balance, limited mobility, lack of concentration, and slurred speech.

These symptoms often go through periods of relapse or remissions. Sometimes there aren’t typical outward signs of the disease, so MS is often called a “silent disease.”

Relapsing-remitting MS is a form of the condition characterized by defined periods of relapse and remission without progression. About 85 percent of all patients are initially diagnosed with this form of MS before beginning treatment.

While there is no cure for MS, recent advances have led to effective therapies that can help MS patients manage their symptoms. Disease-modifying drugs work to change your body’s immune response. These treatments are available as oral medications or injections, prescribed by a medical professional. Other medications that are sometimes recommended to MS patients to ease symptoms include muscle relaxants or corticosteroids, the latter to reduce inflammation.

Because MS can be a challenging disease physically and mentally, drug therapy is often supplemented by physical and emotional support from trained therapists.

The key to successfully treating MS involves working closely with your doctor and other specialists. Medications, therapy, and proper lifestyle choices can help ensure that MS remains only a part of your life, not the determining factor of how you should live it.