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Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is one of the most common causes of vertigo — the sudden sensation that you're spinning or that the inside of your head is spinning.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is characterized by brief episodes of mild to intense dizziness. Symptoms of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo are triggered by specific changes in the position of your head, such as tipping your head up or down, and by lying down, turning over or sitting up in bed. You may also feel out of balance when standing or walking.

Although benign paroxysmal positional vertigo can be a bothersome problem, it's rarely serious except when it increases the chance of falls. You can receive effective treatment for benign paroxysmal positional vertigo during a doctor's office visit.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications

The signs and symptoms of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) may include:

  • Dizziness
  • A sense that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving (vertigo)
  • Lightheadedness
  • Unsteadiness
  • A loss of balance
  • Blurred vision associated with the sensation of vertigo
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

The signs and symptoms of BPPV can come and go, with symptoms commonly lasting less than one minute. Episodes of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo and other forms of vertigo can disappear for some time and then recur.

Activities that bring about the signs and symptoms of BPPV can vary from person to person, but are almost always brought on by a change in the position of your head. Abnormal rhythmic eye movements (nystagmus) usually accompany the symptoms of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Although rare, it's possible to have BPPV in both ears (bilateral BPPV).

When to see a doctor

Generally, see your doctor if you experience any unexplained dizziness or vertigo that recurs periodically for more than one week.

Seek emergency care
Although it's uncommon for dizziness to signal a serious illness, see your doctor immediately if you experience dizziness or vertigo along with any of the following:

  • A new, different or severe headache
  • A fever of 101 F (38 C) or higher
  • Double vision or loss of vision
  • Hearing loss
  • Trouble speaking
  • Leg or arm weakness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Falling or difficulty walking
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Chest pain, or rapid or slow heart rate

The signs and symptoms listed above may signal a more serious problem, such as stroke or a cardiac condition.

About half the time, doctors can't find a specific cause for BPPV.

When a cause can be determined, BPPV is often associated with a minor to severe blow to your head. Less common causes of BPPV include disorders that damage your inner ear or, rarely, damage that occurs during ear surgery or during prolonged positioning on your back. BPPV also has been associated with migraines.

The ear's role

Inside your ear is a tiny organ called the vestibular labyrinth. It includes three loop-shaped structures (semicircular canals) that contain fluid and fine, hair-like sensors that monitor the rotation of your head.

Other structures (otolith organs) in your ear monitor movements of your head — up and down, right and left, back and forth — and your head's position related to gravity. These otolith organs — the utricle and saccule — contain crystals that make you sensitive to gravity.

For a variety of reasons, these crystals can become dislodged. When they become dislodged, they can move into one of the semicircular canals — especially while you're lying down. This causes the semicircular canal to become sensitive to head position changes it would normally not respond to. As a result, you feel dizzy.

Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo occurs most often in people age 60 and older, but can occur at any age. Aside from aging, there are no definite factors that may increase your risk of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. However, a head injury or any other disorder of the balance organs of your ear may make you more susceptible to BPPV.

Although benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) is uncomfortable, it rarely causes complications. In rare cases, if severe, persistent BPPV causes you to vomit frequently, you may be at risk of dehydration. The dizziness of BPPV can put you at greater risk of falling.

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