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Woman experiencing vertigo caused by stress

Can stress cause vertigo?

Medically reviewed on November 22, 2022 by Jillian Foglesong Stabile, MD, FAAFP. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Table of contents


Can stress make you sick? Long term stress can have serious repercussions on the body. Its effects on the body can be complex and wide-ranging—and it can feel dizzying to pinpoint what exactly the phenomenon can cause. For instance, stress is known to have consequences for many of the body's major systems, like the musculoskeletal system (i.e. muscle tension) and the gastrointestinal system (e.g. nausea and bloating) [1].

So, can stress cause vertigo?

In short, no. There’s no evidence to suggest stress can directly cause vertigo, though there may be a correlation between the two: stress can make some people more susceptible to inner ear dysfunction, which has been shown to induce a vertigo attack [2].

Whether you’re suffering from stress, vertigo, or both, exploring the connection between the two can be a crucial first step in understanding each condition (as well as managing them).

What is vertigo?

It’s not uncommon to hear people use the terms “vertigo” and “dizziness” interchangeably, but it’s crucial to understand the clinical distinction between the two:

  • Dizziness refers to the general feeling that you’re unbalanced
  • Vertigo is a specific sense that you or your environment is spinning

People can experience vertigo on a single occasion (like having a few too many drinks and then laying in bed), or it may be a recurring phenomenon [2]. Like chronic dizziness, vertigo isn’t a condition in itself, but rather a symptom of other ailments.

Healthcare providers recognize two types of vertigo, each of which is associated with a certain domain in the nervous system [2]:

  • Peripheral vertigo – This type of vertigo originates in the inner ear.
  • Central vertigo – This type of vertigo is related to problems with the brain, like infection or stroke [2].

Stress and vertigo: what’s the connection?

Just because stress isn’t a direct cause of vertigo doesn’t mean that the two aren’t related.

To understand how, we first need to define a key term: the vestibular system [3]:

The vestibular system helps you maintain balance and proprioception (knowing where your body is in space). As such, it’s highly implicated in cases of severe vertigo.

The vestibular system is also related to your inner ear anatomy. Your inner ear is responsible for absorbing vital sensory information from your environment and passing it on to your brain.

For decades, studies have highlighted correlations between stress and the vestibular system [4]. One 2017 study evaluated some 1500 trial participants and found that stress was indeed an independent risk factor for a vertigo attack [5]. Researchers discovered a statistically significant correlation between the two conditions, though evidence around any causal relationship remains inconclusive [6].

Even so, research into the overlap between stress and vertigo has since spurred scientific interest in how the vestibular system could influence conditions like panic or anxiety disorders. Interestingly, the vestibular system and certain psychiatric disorders have been shown to share some of the same pathways in the brain—and future research will likely explore how these conditions could affect each other reciprocally [7].

What causes vertigo?

It’s estimated that some 40% of Americans will suffer from a vertigo episode at some point in their lives. But because it’s a symptom rather than an illness, the “cause” of vertigo is often those disorders it’s most commonly associated with.

These include [2]:

  • Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) – People with this condition can trigger a bout of vertigo when abruptly changing the position of their head in space.
  • Cholesteatoma – This disorder is characterized by recurring ear infections, which lead to structural changes within the middle ear.
  • Labyrinthitis – An inner ear infection or inflammation that depresses the function of the vestibulocochlear nerve, which supports the vestibular function.
  • Meniere’s disease – This refers to a condition wherein excessive fluid floods the ears.
  • Vestibular neuritis – An inflammation of the vestibular nerve.

Additionally, vertigo may be a side effect of an array of conditions or phenomena that have no relation to the ear at all. Stroke, hyperventilation, and even bed rest can all be attended by a bout of vertigo [2].

Certain medications may also be responsible for its onset, including [8]:

  • Antibiotics
  • Anxiety medication
  • Blood pressure medication
  • Chemotherapy
  • Depression medication
  • Pain medication

Treatments for vertigo and stress

If you suffer from vertigo symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend medication or physical therapy as a treatment modality. Surgery may be advisable in severe cases [2].

You may also be able to reduce your likelihood of vertigo symptoms or episodes by making some simple adjustments. This could be sleeping with your head elevated, avoiding bending over, standing up slowly, and sitting down whenever you start to feel dizzy [2].

And while there’s no evidence to suggest stress causes vertigo, we do know the former can have negative, far-reaching effects on your health. If experiencing vertigo has been a wake-up call to bring more balance to your life, just know that no study has yet to find a link between combating stress and any downsides to your health.

Rebalance your wellness with Everlywell

If you suspect stress could be negatively affecting your health, we want to help. Everlywell’s at-home lab Sleep and Stress Test measures three key hormones to gauge whether your stress response and sleep-wake cycle are well-balanced.

With complete data protection and easy-to-interpret results, each Everlywell test is designed to put you in the driver’s seat of your health. From knowing stress levels to understanding your food sensitivities, browse our complete collection to start rebalancing your well-being today.

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References

  1. Stress effects on the body. American Psychological Association. Published November 1, 2018. Accessed November 3, 2022. URL
  2. Vertigo: What is it, causes, signs & treatment. Cleveland Clinic. Accessed November 3, 2022. URL
  3. Dizziness and balance. American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Accessed November 3, 2022. URL
  4. Saman Y, Bamiou DE, Gleeson M, Dutia MB. Interactions between stress and vestibular compensation – A Review. Frontiers in Neurology. 2012;3. doi:10.3389/fneur.2012.00116
  5. Filippopulos FM, Albers L, Straube A, et al. Vertigo and dizziness in adolescents: Risk factors and their population attributable risk. PLOS ONE. 2017;12(11). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0187819
  6. Brotman DJ. In search of fewer independent risk factors. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2005;165(2):138. doi:10.1001/archinte.165.2.138
  7. Gurvich C, Maller JJ, Lithgow B, Haghgooie S, Kulkarni J. Vestibular insights into cognition and psychiatry. Brain Research. 2013;1537:244-259. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2013.08.058
  8. Medicines that may cause light-headedness or vertigo. MyHealth.Alberta.ca. Accessed November 3, 2022. URL
  9. Managing stress. NAMI. Accessed November 3, 2022. URL
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