by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
More than 7 million people in the USA suffer from vertigo, a condition where they feel the room is spinning around them. One of the most common forms of vertigo goes by the tongue-twisting name of Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). It is also one of the easiest forms of vertigo to treat.
In the past you would go to an ear specialist (ENT doctor) and he would typically perform the Epley maneuver on you to reposition the otoconia (tiny rocks in your head made of calcium carbonate crystals). These tiny crystalline rocks help you keep your balance by sensing gravity. They normally reside in the utricle in the vestibular (balance) part of your inner ear. However, sometimes these “rocks” get jarred out of their normal location and “fall” into one of the three semi-circular canals. (The semi-circular canals sense turning motions in each of three different planes.)
When the “rocks” touch the tiny cilia in the semi-circular canals, they generate false balance signals. As Dr. Carol Foster explains, “The semicircular canals are only capable of sensing turning motions, so the presence of particles moved by gravity causes tilting motions of the head to be incorrectly sensed as violent spinning” (1) or vertigo.
Often the vertigo first strikes you when you are in bed and not when you are standing. This is because when you are upright the entrance to the semicircular canals lies just above the gravity sensors (utricle)—and “rocks” don’t fall upward! However, when you are lying flat on your back, the entrance to the semi-circular canals is located just below the utricle. This means that gravity coupled with side-to-side rolling movements as you roll over in bed can accidentally “knock” the otoconia into the opening of the semi-circular canals.(1)
As Dr. Foster explains, “Rolling over in bed to one side can cause a very sudden, strong sensation of head-over-heels whirling that lasts for several seconds and then dies away. If the eyes are open the room can appear to spin violently. Attempting to sit up from lying down, to lie down from sitting, or to roll over while lying down can cause the symptoms to recur. After getting out of bed, symptoms can be brought on by tipping the head upward (while shampooing or reaching up toward a high shelf, for example), looking back over one shoulder, or by bending over forward and then lifting the head quickly.” (1)
The good news is that recently Dr. Foster discovered a do-it-yourself method to reposition these “rocks” and thus alleviate the vertigo. She calls it the Half Somersault maneuver.
If you have BPPV and want to try it for yourself, here is the link to the instructions for the Half Somersault maneuver. Just be prepared for some vertigo in the process, but it should go away as you progress through these maneuvers.
(1) Carol Foster. Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). Marion Downs Hearing Center. Boulder, CO. http://www.halfsomersaultmaneuver.com/.