I had a vertigo attack last night, Feb 1, 2012. They are disorienting and uncomfortable. Since most of you, thankfully, will never experience them, I thought you might like to know what they are like.
For me, they start with saccades. Saccades are involuntary very rapid side-to-side eye movements. They are my nystagmus vertigo on speed. When I say very rapid, think 80-100 miles per hour. That’s what it feels like to me. I have no idea what it looks like to other people, because I’m effectively blind. I can’t see print, because my eyes can’t keep up with what’s in front of them, no matter how large the print is. I can’t see where I’m going, because my ocular reflex no longer works from either eye.
If I’m just slightly dehydrated, and I catch the saccades in time, I can drink a half-liter of water, and stop the nystagmus. I thought I did that yesterday, an hour before my vertigo attack. Even though I kept drinking, it was not enough. The saccades stopped temporarily, but returned. Sometimes, I can stop them by looking at my fixed-gaze point, which is up and to the left. Remember, it’s my right ear which is damaged. That didn’t work yesterday.
Once the saccades start, I have 3-5 minutes before the whirlies start. The saccades mean I have no control over what my eyes see. That disorientation and my lack of ocular-vestibular reflex is what causes the whirlies and the stomach upset.
With the saccades, what I see is suspect. I can no longer detect up from down, or what is on my right side or left side. Falling down is a real possibility.
I was able to turn off most of the lights in my office and turn down the heat. I discovered this morning I had turned it all the way down. It’s a good thing it’s a mild winter. I would have been quite cold this morning and my office would have taken hours to warm up. And, I did make it upstairs before I had to vomit the first time.
I walked with my cane, holding onto my bookcase and the wall. The room was whirling by this time. I could only think, “Let me get upstairs, let me get upstairs before I have to throw up.”
When the saccades started yesterday, of course I had to go to the bathroom. Of course! My stomach was already queasy.
And, the question is this: which business do I take care of first? This is not an easy question to answer. Once the vomiting starts, I can’t stop it. I opted to sit first, hoping I could finish before I had to vomit. It’s sort of funny in retrospect. I was able to complete that business before I vomited. I was delighted because I did not want to vomit all over myself. Of course, I did not want to do anything else all over myself either. Which is worse? Both are smelly and stinky. I’m laughing as I read this now. I was not yesterday.
I don’t understand bulimics. I understand wanting to lose weight. I don’t understand wanting to make yourself vomit. I find it so uncomfortable. Maybe because when I have a vertigo attack, it seems as if my tummy says, “Everything must go.” Maybe bulimics can limit themselves. The best comparison I have is getting ready for a colonoscopy. That’s an “everything must go” activity also, except it all goes in one direction. I do prefer that direction.
And, of course, the vertigo attack vomiting is uncontrollable. The best thing I can do is get to the kitchen sink or the bathroom in time. I vomited three times downstairs and thought I was done. I was ready for a nap, so I went upstairs to sleep off the rest of the attack. In the past, when I’m done vomiting, I sleep for 1-3 hours, and I’m okay again.
I wasn’t quite done. It took another two more times to empty my stomach. When I say empty, I mean empty. I walked to the bathroom holding onto the wall, because I still have the saccades, have the dry heaves, and then my stomach says, “Oh, okay, you are now officially empty. You may sleep now.”
I didn’t dare drink anything yet, even though I knew I was dehydrated. I knew I would just throw it up. No, not even my beloved water. It’s not worth the aggravation. I barely even rinsed my mouth out, because it irritates my stomach. What works is sleep. So, I slept for an hour.
When I awoke, the saccades were gone. As soon as they are gone, it’s time to start drinking again. Slowly.
I came back downstairs and started with diet ginger ale and water. Slowly. I managed to drink for a couple of hours and then I finally felt hungry enough to eat a protein bar. If I thought I could have made it downstairs, I would have had a shake instead. I didn’t think I could make it down the stairs to get a shake and get back upstairs without falling down. Of course, Mark is out of town so I couldn’t ask him for help.
That’s when the feelings start rushing in. I’m over the attack part. I’ve lived through the immediacy of it, and I start thinking, “How can I live the rest of my life like this?” It’s damn scary.
When it’s time to go to bed for real, I’m almost re-hydrated. I’m tired, because my body and my emotions have been through the wringer. I’m sort-of hungry, but not enough to eat any more. I’m almost afraid of eating, and happy that the bar I ate is in my tummy, being digested.
The post-vertigo attack symptoms are scary, too. My tinnitus in my right ear always changes for a while, and this time was no exception. It woke me up this morning at 3am. A parenthetical thought: it could have waited until 7am, when I was already awake. My balance is much worse than it was yesterday morning, and will stay that way for a few days.
What really hits me is the isolation. Very few people know what a vertigo attack feels like. I try to describe it, and even my doctors look at me like I’m nuts.
I try not to think of the future, because that’s too damn scary. How can I think of the next 10 or 20 or 30 years like this? I had a great pity party in the shower this morning. I hate to admit it, but I’ve had a couple more since then, between my tasks this morning. When I finish this page, I’ll have one more. And, then, no more until tonight.
I wish I could leave you on an upbeat note, but a vertigo attack is not an upbeat occasion. The most upbeat thing I can say is, thank goodness they don’t happen every day or last more than a couple of hours.
Looking back on this writeup, I was exhibiting the first two forms of emotional resilience during the attack. I was keeping myself healthy by taking care of my physical needs (form 1), and making sure I didn’t make a physical mess.
The second form of emotional resilience was problem solving during and right after the attack. I have had too much experience with vertigo attacks, so I know a little about what to expect. Even so, being able to think through the problem as it is occurring helps me feel more as if I am in charge and less like a victim. Maybe that can help you, too.
Some of you have commented below because you have found this page because you have had your first vertigo attack. I hope it is your last vertigo attack. Here are some things you can do:
- As Douglas Adams would say in the Hitchhikers Guide books, “Don’t Panic.” I know, that’s hard to do.
- If you have not called your primary care physician, do so.
- If you have not called an ENT, and Ear Nose & Throat doctor, call one now. An ENT is your first step towards a real diagnosis. You do not know what is causing your vertigo. You don’t know if this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, or if this is an ongoing problem. You can live with just about anything, but you will manage your life differently, depending on what the problem is.
- Once your immediate attack has stopped and your stomach has calmed down, drink enough water to rehydrate yourself. I recommend plain tap water. But drink whatever you can keep down. Sometimes, I drink diet ginger ale. Ginger ale with sugar can trigger another vertigo attack for me.
- Watch your sugar and salt intake. If you eat too much sugar or salt or caffeine, you can trigger another vertigo attack.
Good luck. Believe me, I know how you feel. Please keep posting here, and I will keep posting my best wishes for you.
I just wrote Seven Things You Can Do to Help Manage Your Vertigo. That’s what you do after you see an ENT (Ear, Nose, & Throat) doctor and/or an oto-neurologist. I hope this helps.
Remember, I’m a fellow sufferer, not a doctor. Everyone is different. What works for me may not work for you.
Hey, everybody, do you know about PatientsLikeMe.com? When I first joined, they didn’t have many people with vertigo. Now they have more. We have a community now, and they have a way to gather patient data. Maybe it’s time for us to put our data there.
There is a European interdisciplinary network you might like to know about. See the Dizzynet announcement, the vision and aims for Dizzinet. Those of you who are in Europe, if you learn anything, please share. Thanks.