Dealing with the Spins: Dizziness & Vertigo in Multiple Sclerosis

Written by Ann Pietrangelo | Published on March 14, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George T. Krucik, MD, MBA on March 14, 2014

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.

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