by Jody Smith
I’ll always remember my 25th wedding anniversary as being something special. I wish I could say that this was because my husband and I celebrated in some marvelous fashion, but that wasn’t it. At the age of 49, I thought I was having a stroke.
I got up that morning feeling fine — or no worse than usual at any rate — but when I went to my bedroom to get dressed all that changed. Waves of sensory chaos began to crash over me, and I sat on the bed waiting for it to pass. It didn’t. I’d had a wide variety of sensory chaos and problems with my brain for many years by that time, but this was different.
I had the strangest feeling that I — the inner I — was somehow disappearing. And I felt an urgent need to not be alone for this terrifying experience.
Normally it’s probably less than a minute’s walk from my bedroom to the living room. But normally the walls are not moving in and out and the floor was not usually coming up to meet me in waves. I don’t know how long it took me to grope my way down this hallway but it seemed to take forever.
I staggered into the living room and saw my husband Alan sitting there. My sense of relief was so great that I almost wept. He saw immediately that something was very wrong as I stumbled over to the couch and collapsed on it, staring wordlessly at him. Wordless because I couldn’t talk and couldn’t form words in my head. He spoke to me. I couldn’t comprehend what he said.
Was I having a stroke? We were both familiar with some of the symptoms, and these seemed to fit.
Trouble walking? Check.
Trouble speaking? Check.
Trouble understanding? Check.
Numbness and weakness in face, arms and legs? Check, check and check.
Problems with vision? Check.
What I was seeing looked fractured, movement seemed choppy. I think my peripheral vision may have disappeared because I felt like I was in a dark cave though the room was normally lighted.
My mother happened to come by a few minutes later, ironically to see if she could talk me into giving my doctor another try at finding out what was wrong with me. She wasn’t prepared for what she walked in on. She called my doctor’s office to try to get me in right away, telling them I might be having a stroke. The office receptionist said to bring me in. Alan would stay home with the kids.
The doctor was patronizing. He smiled and said I wasn’t having a stroke. When he checked my blood pressure though, the numbers were through the roof, and that wiped the smile off his face. I was still enough myself to get some real pleasure out of his surprise. He thought I was overreacting? He should try it from the inside.
He sent me immediately to the nearest hospital for tests. I didn’t know if I would be going back home that day … or ever.
As it turned out, all my test results were normal. Except for those troubling blood pressure numbers in the doctor’s office, everything indicated that I was the picture of health. Even though I was poured into my bed after the hospital tests, and basically stayed there for the next four months.
Later I realized that I had been hit with an extreme and long-lasting case of vertigo. It improved quite a bit over a period of months but it took seven years to disappear. I did some reading while I was convalescing and saw that I’d probably been dealing with some mild vertigo for a number of years without knowing it, that some of what I would have called ME/CFS symptoms were vertigo symptoms.
What is Vertigo?
MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health describes vertigo as a “sensation of motion or spinning that is often described as dizziness.” They specify that vertigo is not light-headedness. If you have vertigo you may feel as though you are moving or spinning, or as though the world around you is spinning.
The NHS Choices website, supported by the UK Department of Health, says “If you have vertigo, you may feel as if you’re moving even when you’re standing completely still.” A vertigo episode can last just for seconds, or it can be longer, whether minutes, hours, days, weeks or years.
If you have vertigo you may feel a spinning sensation that can leave you nauseous, and may make you vomit. You might have problems getting your eyes to focus. You may lose hearing in one ear. Perhaps you’ll feel a loss of balance, even to the point of falling down. You may experience tinnitis, which is ringing in the ears.
Peripheral vertigo is caused by issues with areas of the inner ear (the vestibular labyrinth or semicircular canals) that regulate balance. The vestibular nerve, connecting the inner ear to the brainstem, may also play a role.
Peripheral vertigo can be set off by a number of different possible causes. Some of these are benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (triggered by position changes), and injuries such as head trauma. Neuronitis (vestibular nerve inflammation), labyrinthitis and Menier’s disease can cause peripheral vertigo, as can pressure against the vestibular nerve. Some medications like aminoglycoside antibiotics, cisplatin, diuretics, or salicylates can trigger peripheral vertigo.
Central vertigo can result from a problem in the brainstem, the cerebellum (in the back of the brain) or other parts of the brain. It can cause double vision, facial paralysis. You may have problems with eye movement, and swallowing can be difficult. Speech may be slurred. Your arms and legs may experience weakness.
Central vertigo has several possible causes. Migraines, multiple sclerosis, stroke, and rarely seizures can result in central vertigo symptoms. Tumors that are usually noncancerous, and disease affecting blood vessels may cause this type of vertigo as well. Some medications like anticonvulsants, aspirin and alcohol can also be triggers.
Just another wastebasket diagnosis?
Did it help to be able to say I had vertigo rather than chalking it all up to a vague (non)diagnosis of ME/CFS? Not really. I came to understand that vertigo can be something of a wastebasket diagnosis too. Plenty of people live with vertigo for years with no idea as to its cause, and no idea how to make it stop.
In another way though, I think it made me feel a bit better. At least some of my symptoms were pretty common — more common than I’d realized before I got hit with vertigo. And telling people I had vertigo got a different reaction than saying I had ME/CFS. It got no more understanding, but people tended to believe that maybe something was wrong after all. It didn’t help my condition but sometimes it made me feel more normal despite being so unwell.
Happy Anniversay You’re Going to the Hospital: 2004
Vertigo and the Healing Power of Books
Vertigo — Hallucination of the Inner Ear
Spring of /05 : Crawling Out of Vertigo