Feeling dizzy or having spells of vertigo (an illusory sense of motion usually described as ‘spinning’) can be quite troubling to most people. Of utmost concern is whether these symptoms represent something serious, such as a brain tumor. Rest assured, isolated symptoms of dizziness or vertigo are an extremely rare presenting sign of a brain tumor. To quote Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Kindergarten Cop’ (using his Austrian accent) “It’s not a tumor!”
Despite this, at least in the United States, it is the norm to proceed with a neuro-imaging study, such as CT or MRI, of the brain to “rule out” brain tumor, stroke, or multiple sclerosis (MS). There have been several studies concluding that doing CT and MRI scans for ‘dizziness’ or ‘vertigo’ in the absence of other neurologic signs or symptoms and in the absence of asymmetric hearing loss is not cost effective and rarely leads to a diagnosis.
Consider the following quote from Australian neuro-ophthalmologists who specialize in vestibular disorders:
“Balance disorders are common, while brain tumors are rare. An isolated balance disorder is thus rarely the presenting symptom of a brain tumor, and some physicians, particularly in countries infested with lawyers, worry about missing a brain tumor” – Hirose & Halmagyi, 1996
What country do you think they are referring to (“infested with lawyers”)?
On the other hand, vestibular function testing [which includes video-nystagmography (VNG), rotary chair, vestibular evoked myogenic potential (VEMP) and audiogram(hearing test)] assesses for both central (brain) and peripheral (inner ear) causes for dizziness and vertigo and can be quite helpful in localizing ‘where’, and then ‘what’ is causing the problem. Vestibular function testing has been demonstrated to be much more accurate and much more cost effective than MRI or laboratory tests in determining the cause of dizziness and vertigo.
‘Dizziness’ and ‘vertigo’ are symptoms, not diagnoses. Proper treatment of vestibular disorders is based on first determining the cause of dizziness or vertigo. Determining the cause of symptoms begins with a thorough history and physical examination followed by vestibular function testing in select patients.