New Research: Are Vertigo and Hearing Loss Connected?

Vertigo is a distressing feeling: Your surroundings feel as if they are spinning, and you feel dizzy — so dizzy, in fact, you might even fall.

Michelle A. Othon, who lives in New York state, has been navigating life with this sensation for nearly a decade. She has Ménière's disease, which is a disorder of the inner ear that can lead to dizzy spells (vertigo) and hearing loss, according to the Mayo Clinic. This condition is a type of vestibular disorder, which involves the inner ear.

In Othon’s case, her symptoms of what’s also known as chronic disequilibrium started suddenly. Her vertigo “came on fast and furious without warning, and like so many other maladies, it was deemed to be idiopathic,” she said. “At the time, the theory was that it was caused by a viral infection.”

“It’s a really nauseating experience to feel dizzy 24/7,” Othon said. “After nine years of this, I finally had to leave my career this year, so I’m on long-term disability now.”

What we know and don’t know about vertigo

Experiencing vertigo all of a sudden can be scary, especially if someone does not know the cause — which, as with Othon, is often the case. The process of diagnosing vertigo can be challenging since dizziness is a symptom for an array of medical conditions.

There are a couple of circumstances that can make the situation more complicated, too. Vertigo or dizziness may be a symptom of COVID-19 — which can certainly trigger concern — and it may also be related to hearing loss, presenting multiple issues to be addressed.

Vertigo and hearing loss

Recently, researchers from Intermountain Precision Genomics have been taking a closer look at the genetic basis for vertigo, including the link to hearing loss. Scanning over 18,000 genes, the scientists uncovered six new genome-wide vertigo variants involving “genes with known roles in inner ear development, maintenance, and disease”. One of these genetic variants reportedly “confers low risk” of age-related hearing loss.

“I think there certainly are examples where people with hearing problems also have inner-ear difficulties that make them feel dizzy. Whether these variants are directly related to hearing problems or not, we don't know yet,” said David Jones, senior scientific program director for Intermountain Precision Genomics, who was part of the team that reported their findings in Communications Biology in October 2021

Why this research is important for people with vertigo

For many patients with vertigo symptoms, it can be a challenge to get a diagnosis. Doctors often start by taking a differential diagnosis approach. This means they will consider two or more conditions that might be behind a patient’s symptoms.

Jones hopes that new genetic tests will emerge to help doctors identify the root cause of a patient’s vertigo. “What we would be able to do in the future now, knowing that these variants are predisposing to dizziness, is you could imagine having a genetic test that was available in emergency rooms one day,” Jones said.

At the moment, though, if you experience vertigo, the best plan is to contact your healthcare provider.

“You should go talk to your doctor and say, ‘I'm having dizzy spells.’” Jones said. “Then, they can decide the best next steps and whether or not you should get your hearing tested.”