The experience of dizziness happens to many people in their lifetime. But there is a specific condition that is the cause of at least 20 percent of vertigo cases and it is called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV). This condition causes the world to start spinning, it can last from a few minutes to a few months until it eventually fades on its own. The resulting nausea, dizziness, and light-headedness are debilitating to people who get it and can stop people from working and doing normal activities. But the root of the problem may be your ear crystals.
So, what are ear crystals?
Ear crystals, or otoconia, are tiny gravity-sensing crystals made of calcium carbonate that are found within the chambers of the inner ear and help you keep your balance.
“Imagine a hill with blades of grass, and on top of each blade is a crystal,” explained Dr Neil Cherian to Cleaveland Clinic. “Together, these crystals form an interconnected matrix. Whenever the blades of grass move, so do the crystals.”
In this analogy, the blades of grass actually represent the cilia in your ear, which are attached to tiny nerves. When your head is moving, the crystals tend to move and cause the nerves to fire. Normally, this matrix of crystals is a reliable motion-sensing map. However, it all goes wrong when the crystals break free and start drifting into one of the ear’s semicircular balance canals.
This wreaks havoc on your balance system and causes a feeling of dizziness.
In your inner ear, the direction-sensing cupula and the fluid in the semi-circular canals only move when your head moves. The crystals disrupt this.
“When the crystals are all connected, the fluid in the canals settles down as soon as your head stops moving,” said Cherian. “But when the crystals are disconnected, they keep moving in the fluid for up to a few seconds afterward. Then your brain has to figure out, ‘Why is there movement when I don’t see it?’ And that is what makes you dizzy,”
There are a few factors that may influence your ear crystals coming loose: if you have chronic inner ear infections, if you have suffered a head injury, or if you are aged 65 years or older.
To stop this from happening and treat BPPV, the crystals need to go back to where they belong, in the inner ear. This can be done by a physical therapist with the Epley maneuver, a self-repositioning BPPV exercise that can move the crystals back into place with some precise head tilting. The maneuver has a success rate of 90 percent when done in a medical setting and can be very effective when done on your own, according to Cherian.
However, sometimes the treatment does not work, maybe due to having too many loose crystals, both ears being affected, technical issues, the crystals having drifted into more than one semicircular canal, or, perhaps, the cause of the dizziness is something else.