Vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo – Migraine Associated Vertigo

Ross Hauser, MD

This article continues and provides further discussion and information on cervical vertigo. Please refer to Cervical Vertigo and Cervicogenic Dizziness from more discussion, patient cases, and treatment options for problems of dizziness.

When people come into our offices with a problem of Vestibular migraine, spontaneous vertigo, or Migraine Associated Vertigo they talk to us about a very long medical journey they have taken that no one can quite understand. This includes family and the medical professionals that these people have seen already looking for help and support. If their stories are similar to your story, you will know that these people spend a lot of time looking for the triggers that cause the “silent migraine” a headache-free migraine, and the sudden, spontaneous vertigo that comes with it.

Here are some of the things we have heard from our patients:

My doctor sent me to a nutritionist. We did allergy food testing, which I was sensitive to a few things. I was told no sugars and no caffeine because in addition to the dizziness I would suffer from sudden onset panic attacks and of course, this whole problem with my health leaves me pretty much exhausted with stress and anxiety. 

I am still on the diet, I think it has helped somewhat, but I still get these symptoms of migraine aura and then dizziness. They even come to me in my dreams. 

I have been on Verapamil, it helps a little. My doctor thinks it would work better if I had symptoms of Meniere’s Disease. I do have a sway to me. 

Treatments for me up until this point have not been successful. Things do not work for me long-term. At this point, I would be grateful if something worked for me short term. As my symptoms got worse I would get more diagnoses and more medications. I started to get confused as to whether my worsening symptoms were the result of side effects from these medications or new manifestations. 

I thank god that I am still somewhat functional and that I have a supportive husband. I am also grateful that these attacks seem to have been less dramatic and less frequent, however, they are still there in the back of my mind. I wish I had answers. 

If this story sounds familiar to you and you are also searching for answers, this article will present one possible answer for you. That your symptoms are being caused by cervical neck instability and physical problems in your cervical spine manifesting themselves in vestibular migraine and spontaneous dizziness. Let’s look at supportive research.

“No objective tests, imaging or audiologic, have been shown to reliably diagnose this condition”

This is the introduction to a paper from doctors at the Department of Otolaryngology, George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates. It was published in July 2021 in the journal Otolaryngologic clinics of North America. (1) If you feel that your doctor does not understand your condition, it may be because your doctor does not understand your diagnosis and why he or she is prescribing medications that may  (hopefully) or may not work.

“Vestibular migraine is one of the most common neurologic causes of vertigo. Symptoms and International Classification of Headache Disorders criteria (see below) are used to diagnose Vestibular migraine because no objective tests, imaging, or audiologic, have been shown to reliably diagnose this condition. Central auditory, peripheral, and central vestibular pathway involvement has been associated with Vestibular migraine. Although the interaction between migraine and other vestibular disorders can be a challenging scenario for diagnosis and treatment, there are data to show that vestibular rehabilitation and a variety of pharmacologic agents improve reported symptoms and vertigo frequency.”

We will discuss pharmacologic treatment further below. Although if you are reading this article, you may yourself have reached a point where pharmacologic agents are no longer providing relief.

Explanatory note: The International Classification of Headache Disorders criteria calls for possible diagnosis of vestibular migraine when some of the following are present.

“Vestibular migraine is the most common cause of spontaneous vertigo but remains poorly understood.”

Poorly understood is a recurrent theme when it comes to patients with Vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo.

Stat Pearls is a publication of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. In the article Migraine-Associated Vertigo (Vestibular Migraine) (2), Daniel B. Hilton and Carl Shermetaro of McLaren Oakland Hospital write of the complication surrounding the understanding of Vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo. (Article Updated July 2021) Again, this may explain why your health care providers are looking for answers for you.

The difference between Vestibular migraines and migraines – Can your doctor tell? Maybe if you are post-menopausal, depressed, motion sick, complaining of imbalance, and of food-triggered headaches.

A June 2021 paper in the Journal of Neurology (3) comes from the Department of Neuroscience, Institute of Health Sciences, Dokuz Eylül University in Turkey. Here are the summary points:

The vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR)

Another study published in October 2019, led by researchers at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School, and Ohio State University also examined Vestibular migraine as one of the most common causes of spontaneous vertigo and why this problem remains poorly understood. The study was published in Scientific Reports (4).

Here are the learning points:

We are going to move away from this research for some brief understanding notes and then we will return:

Why vestibulo-ocular reflex may connect other symptoms to Vestibular migraine

A May 2021 paper in the journal Otology & Neurotology (5) found a significantly higher prevalence of enhanced vestibulo-ocular reflex responses in patients with Menière’s disease, central origin vertigo, otosclerosis (abnormal bone growth in the ear), and vestibular migraine than in those with other neurotologic diseases and controls. This study found that enhanced vestibulo-ocular reflexes are not pathognomonic (indicative) of hydrops-related diseases and the diagnosis should not solely be based on these and instead take into context other clinical and examination findings. In other words, look at the other symptoms and conditions.

What are we seeing in this image?

The vestibular system is the body’s sensory system that regulates balance and spatial orientation (the understanding of where you are in your environment). It sits in the inner ear and works by adjusting fluid levels that act as the balance mechanism. As human beings, we set our awareness of our place in space by using the ground as the constant place of orientation. We can keep our balance when we walk because we understand the ground is the constant and our vestibular system makes constant involuntary adjustments to “keep things steady,” to prevent motion from creating dizziness or sway.

The vestibular system is the body’s sensory system that regulates balance and spatial orientation (the understanding of where you are in your environment). It sits in the inner ear and works by adjusting fluid levels that act as the balance mechanism. In human beings, we set our awareness of our place in space by using the ground as the constant place of orientation. We can keep our balance when we walk because we understand the ground is the constant and our vestibular system makes constant involuntary adjustments to “keep things steady," to prevent motion from creating dizziness or sway.

Returning to the study

The suggestion is simply, something is happening to the vestibular nerve which is overly sensitized to pain by the reaction of something happening to the brainstem, and the process is further sent into panic by a dysregulation of the function of the balance mechanism in the ear.

What are we seeing in this image? Vestibular migraine patients were abnormally sensitive to roll tilt

It’s an ear problem, not a Ménière’s disease problem. Vestibular migraine patients were abnormally sensitive to roll tilt (a misalignment of the eyes disrupting the sense of gravity and space), which co-modulates semicircular canal and otolith organ activity (this is an ability to sense gravity and sense motion), but not to motions that activate the canals or otolith organs in isolation (where fluid in the ears stabilizers balance), implying sensitization of canal-otolith integration. (Something is off but it is not a Meniere’s Disease type problem.)

It's an ear problem, not a Ménière's disease problem. estibular migraine patients were abnormally sensitive to roll tilt (a misalignment of the eyes disrupting sense of gravity and space), which co-modulates semicircular canal and otolith organ activity (this is an ability to sense gravity and sense motion), but not to motions that activate the canals or otolith organs in isolation (where fluid in the ears stabilizers balance), implying sensitization of canal-otolith integration. (Something is off but it is not a Meniere's Disease type problem.)

Why does the treatment protocol include antidepressants, antiepileptics, beta-blockers, and physical therapy? Some may find this treatment successful. People with neck pain and instability may not.

As we are quick to point out. Many people do well with many treatments for vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo. People who do well with medications are typically not the people we see in our office. Medications do not work for everyone.

Let’s examine a May 2020 study (6) from the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, Medical University of South Carolina. In this study, researchers sought to identify patient factors that influence response to therapy in patients with vestibular migraines. In other words, what could make the treatment work better, what factors would predispose a patient to a less than optimal response to treatment?

What happened to the 47 patients?

Neck pain and oscillopsia did not respond as well

Are neck pain and cervical spine instability a possible cause of your vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo – migraine-associated vertigo?

We suggest one possible answer for this, not the only one. We feel an examination of cervical spine instability may lead to an answer.

When there is pressure on the brain stem, and this pressure can be exerted by hypermobility of the cervical spine vertebrae, this can result in health problems or diseases of the brainstem which can result in abnormalities in the function of cranial nerves. These would be the problems we spoke about earlier surrounding visual disturbances, pupil abnormalities, vestibular and headache symptom severity, hearing problems, vertigo, swallowing difficulty, among other challenges. In our case, we may explore what is happening throughout the cervical spine with attention to cervical vertebrae where Cranial Nerve VIII (Vestibulocochlear nerve) is comprised of the cochlear nerve (hearing) and the vestibular nerve (sense of space, balance) moves from the ear to the brain stem.

Regenerative Medicine Injections

Prolotherapy is an injection technique that stimulates the repair of unstable, torn, or damaged ligaments. When the cervical ligaments are unstable, they allow for excessive movement of the vertebrae, which can then restrict blood flow to the brain, pinch on nerves (a pinched nerve causing Vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo), and cause other symptoms associated with joint instability, including cervical instability.

Treating cervical ligaments – published research from Caring Medical

In our 2014 research headed by Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, PA-C, We also noted that when the cervical ligaments are injured, they become stretched out and loose. This allows for excessive abnormal movement of the cervical vertebrae.

Treating and stabilizing the cervical ligaments can alleviate the problems of  Vestibular migraine and spontaneous vertigo by preventing excessive abnormal vertebrae movement, the development or advancing of cervical osteoarthritis, and the myriad of problematic symptoms they cause.

If this article has helped you understand the problems of cervical vertigo and you would like to explore Prolotherapy as a possible remedy, ask for help and information from our specialists

Continue with your research with these articles:

References

1 Zaleski-King A, Monfared A. Vestibular Migraine and Its Comorbidities. Otolaryngologic Clinics of North America. 2021 Jul 20. [Google Scholar]
2
Hilton DB, Shermetaro C. Migraine-Associated Vertigo (Vestibular Migraine). InStatPearls [Internet] 2019 Jun 4. StatPearls Publishing. [Google Scholar]
3 Özçelik P, Koçoğlu K, Öztürk V, Keskinoğlu P, Akdal G. Characteristic differences between vestibular migraine and migraine only patients. Journal of Neurology. 2021 Jun 9:1-6.
4 King S, Priesol AJ, Davidi SE, Merfeld DM, Ehtemam F, Lewis RF. Self-motion perception is sensitized in vestibular migraine: pathophysiologic and clinical implications. Scientific reports. 2019 Oct 4;9(1):1-2. [Google Scholar]
Vargas-Alvarez A, Ninchritz-Becerra E, Goiburu M, Betances F, Rey-Martinez J, Altuna X. Clinical prevalence of enhanced vestibulo-ocular reflex responses on video head impulse test. Otology & Neurotology. 2021 Jun 11. [Google Scholar]
6 Dornhoffer JR, Liu YF, Donaldson L, Rizk HG. Factors implicated in response to treatment/prognosis of vestibular migraine [published online ahead of print, 2020 May 24]. Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2020;10.1007/s00405-020-06061-0. doi:10.1007/s00405-020-06061-0 [Google Scholar]

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