What Constant Vertigo is Like

It has been over two months since my inner ear surgery. I haven’t been talking about my recovery because, frankly, it’s been really frustrating. The short version is that I’m still having problems, currently exacerbated by a nasty sinus infection (which I am taking antibiotics for). But, rather than continue to whine about it, I thought I would try to put into words what the sensation is like, so that writers can present it more accurately.

Immediately after my surgery, everything was a constantly spinning tornado of nausea. Every time I opened my eyes, I was immediately nauseous, and the only thing that made things better was sleep. Honestly, most of that time was a blur (no pun intended), but I do recall everything spinning a lot. Strangely, this was the most normal part of things, because it felt like getting off of a really bad roller coaster ride or something similar.

Once that calmed down, the next week or so was the weird sensation of having the constant spinning, but not having the accompanying nausea. Every time I moved, the world spun, but it didn’t make me sick — just hard to move. It was like being very, very drunk, but subtracting the ill feeling that comes with it — it’s hard to focus your eyes, you have trouble walking in a straight line, and you find yourself leaning on tables and other handy props to keep yourself upright. Moving around and navigating was not only very difficult, but it was also exhausting, and it felt like a lot of my brain power was devoted to simple activities like eating, drinking, and watching TV.

From there, the vertigo became milder, but no less constant. I was able to do light activities with increasingly less reliance on help as I walked, but lying down was still my preferred state. I was able to go to work in the later parts of this stage, and I noticed that when I walked in a straight line for a distance, I would involuntarily stagger to the left and right a fair amount. Stairs also felt easier to navigate when I could use the handrail — my body constantly thought it was going to lurch forward when walking down stairs. Interestingly, my driving wasn’t impaired — when I sat normally, the vertigo was extremely mild, and I was able to focus. Checking behind me was a bit of a challenge, so I kept to one lane when possible, and took routes without a lot of intersections when I could, but I was able to concentrate and recognize my environment just fine.

After that, the vertigo became intermittent, and I’ve gone through various stages of intensity (up and down). I could sit down at a stretch and not notice any symptoms, but when I had to turn my head to, say, talk to someone, the vertigo would come back, and things would get blurry for a second until my head settled in the new position. Meetings turned out to be particularly exhausting, because I would turn to look at each speaker (and, of course, try to focus on them to hear them), and a one-hour meeting would wipe me out. I discovered that sitting at the end of the table when I could helped immensely, as I would turn my head only a little. Trying to do anything while walking (like checking my cellphone) is impossible — I fall over.

Now, the vertigo shows up a handful of times a day, when I’m doing a lot of walking or suddenly changing my elevation (such as ducking to get into or out of a car). I’ll feel my body start to counter an imbalance that doesn’t exist, or I’ll have to close my eyes for a second as my head sorts things out. It’s not crippling, but it is irritating, exhausting, and can add up if I don’t rest in between attacks.

Some of this is skewed — for example, for most of my life I would get car- and plane-sick, and after the surgery my nausea has actually gone down even when the vertigo was pretty bad — so it’s possible that a normal person going through this might have more nausea than I have had thus far. And objectively, it’s got me thinking a lot about concussions and other skull damage, and how much vertigo is downplayed in action fiction. But I’m ready to end this phase of my research, thanks.

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