Another audience member at my UCSD Stein Public Lecture asked me about the definition of vertigo and the difference between dizziness and vertigo.

That is a great question!

So, what is the difference between dizziness and vertigo?

In medical care, healthcare providers typically make a distinction between dizziness and vertigo for purposes of medical documentation.

However, most patients generally lump dizziness and vertigo into the same category and call it “dizziness.” The patients I have met who are able to accurately describe their symptoms as either “dizziness” or “vertigo” have either done some personal research on the difference between dizziness and vertigo, or they have been educated by a healthcare provider.

Definition: Dizziness

“Dizziness” is typically defined as a feeling of light-headedness, as if you were going to pass out. This feeling may come and go, or may be constant.

Dizziness is often caused by medical conditions such as dehydration, low blood sugar, irregular heart rate or low blood pressure, to name a few possible causes.

An example of “dizziness” is what you may experience when you are hungry or thirsty, due to low blood sugar or dehydration, respectively.

Another example of “dizziness” is getting light-headed when you stand up quickly on a hot, sunny day. That feeling of dizziness is caused by low blood pressure and may cause fainting in severe cases. This is the major difference between dizziness and vertigo.

Definition: Vertigo

The definition of “vertigo” is an illusion of spinning, tilting or translating when you are actually still, OR an impaired perception of otherwise normal motion.

For example, someone who rolls over in bed onto their left side, and then feels like they are spinning for about thirty seconds has experienced “vertigo.” They felt a false sense of spinning when they were actually lying still on their left side.

Another example of vertigo could occur while walking in a straight line on your tile floor, if you feel like you are walking down “into the ground.”

If you feel like you are standing up perfectly straight, but someone tells you that you are in fact leaning off to the side, then you may have vertigo causing spacial disorientation.

These are some examples of the difference between dizziness and vertigo.

If you report either of these feelings to your healthcare provider, be sure to explain the onset of the symptoms, the length of time the feeling lasted and what seemed to be the trigger. That way, even if you are not sure if you are experiencing dizziness or vertigo, your healthcare provider will have enough information to help you figure it out and receive proper care.


This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content and any comments by Dr. Kim Bell, DPT are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. The details of any case mentioned in this post represent a typical patient that Dr. Bell might see and do not describe the circumstances of a specific individual.

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