I feel the earth move under my feet: should I see a doctor now?
August 19, 2011 1:02 PM   Subscribe

Do I need to go to the doctor because of a few moments of intense vertigo? I mean, is it an early sign of a brain tumor? Or is it a symptom of something that's going to go away on its own? Anyone have comments on the seriousness of balance loss as a symptom?

I have an appointment later today, and I'd rather cancel it because work is busy. That said, I actually have two friends-of-friends who got diagnosed with brain tumors, so I'm not screwing around with weird symptoms.

The basic symptom is vertigo. There have been three distinct moments, each time when I was walking and turning my head. The first time, I thought it may have been an earthquake. It was that kind of "whoa, what was that? did the earth just move?" sensation. It wasn't like the earth was spinning; it was more like the floor moved or like the elevator unexpectedly dropped nine inches. It was very real for a split second, and then ended. Beyond that, I've had a little dizziness and light-headedness. Beyond that, I'm basically healthy. (I might be getting a cold? Throat a little scratchy? Co-worker had a major cough last week? Minor headache that is unusual for me, but which I attribute to fighting off that cough. No numbess, difficulty moving, vision or hearing loss.)

The doctor on call said "balance is an inner ear thing. It could be a drop of water in your ear that got all the way in there, or some sort of inner ear virus. It could come and go the rest of your life, or it could be a one-time thing." He laughed off my fear that it was a brain tumor caused by my years of frequent cell phone use.

Then I came home and googled cell phone brain tumor symptoms, and the first few results include this article which says:

Researchers at the Department of Oncology, University Hospital in Sweden reviewed sixteen published studies that looked at cell phone use and the rate of brain cancers. They concluded that: "For both acoustic neuroma and glioma (two types of brain cancer), overall risk was increased in the whole group...."

Acoustic neuromas, also called schwannomas, are a non-cancerous tumor that develops on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. The tumor usually grows slowly. As it grows, it presses against the nerves responsible for hearing and balance. Radiosurgery is usually the standard treatment.

I am the anxious type, but I don't have a history of hypochondria. I've seen the doctor maybe two times in the last two years? I didn't go looking for this article by googling "balance vertigo cell phone tumor." I just tried to find out what are the symptoms of tumors, particularly of the tumors related to unsafe cell phone use.

But I'd be happy to learn it's likely nothing, in which case I want to cancel this appointment. If this is likely nothing, I don't want to leave work today. If it may be something serious, particularly something that will only be detectable now before it goes back into a symptom-free state somehow, I want to catch that thing early (or rule it out). If I go in and they take my blood pressure, laugh at my worst-case scenario, say "oh it's probably nothing, call us in two weeks if it keeps happening," and send me home, I'm going to be really annoyed that I didn't just wait and call them in two weeks.

So, does anyone have enough knowledge about this topic to advise me about whether I should go? And if I do go and they just laugh off the idea that it's worth investigating, is there something I could do or say to encourage them to actually consider the possibilities that made it worth the trip?

I know all advice comes with the disclaimer that YANMD and that this is the internet.
posted by slidell to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If you don't like what one doctor said, you go see another doctor. What you don't do is ignore it. You'll be a lot more annoyed with yourself if they catch something in two weeks, rather than now.

Plus, I will bet dollars to donuts you'll spend the next two weeks reading more and more Cancer Monthly and scare yourself half to death about brain tumors.
posted by griphus at 1:10 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: OK, stop worrying about brain tumors and for chrissakes stop looking up stuff about cell phone tumors. That would scare anyone. Just...don't do it.

There are sooooo many conditions that can affect your balance. Drop of water in your ear is on one side of the scale. Brain tumor is waaaaaay on the other side. I have a balance-affecting condition that lies somewhere in between the two.

I vote for DON'T cancel your appointment. It could be nothing, it could be serious, it could be something that needs to get checked out further by a neurologist, it could be something that could get worse with time, etc. The best thing to do is to check it out now, while you're symptomatic, while the causes that have led up to it are still fresh in your mind, and while you have a doctor's appointment already scheduled.

Work will still be there tomorrow. Visible symptoms might not. Go to the doctor today. If they laugh off the idea that it's worth investigating, say "hey, asshole, you're my doctor and I can tell there's something not right about me. Either start caring about my welfare or I'm going to find myself another physician."
posted by phunniemee at 1:12 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you had any sort of upper respiratory infection lately or have you been sleep deprived lately? I had horrible vertigo a few months ago (which I also thought cell phone brain tumor! but my doctor and friends just laughed at me) that was caused by some swelling of my inner ear brought on by the infection.

Not sure why sleep deprivation causes me to get vertigo, but it does.
posted by astapasta24 at 1:19 PM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: Go to your appointment and don't be annoyed regardless of the outcome. What do you have to gain by being annoyed, you know? Work's busy and that sucks, but life is more important. And don't mention cell phone brain tumors to the doctor. Tell them you're having vertigo like symptoms and you're worried it could be a neurological problem. You have a worrying symptom and you want medical advice. Your doctor will hopefully be able to ascertain from your description of your symptoms whether or not you need hardcore neuro testing, or whether you can take some meclizine and wait for the inner ear virus to run its course.
posted by eldiem at 1:20 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I was younger, I would occasionally get bouts of benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (note the key word "benign")—it was a lot like what you've got. More recently, I also had more intense vertigo caused by a sinus infection that moved to my ears. In any case, go. It's probably no big deal, but why mess with it?
posted by adamrice at 1:22 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can get vertigo if you have a bit of water in your ear. It's not necessarily anything to panic about.

That said, it could be a symptom of something serious, so yes, do definitely get it checked out.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:28 PM on August 19, 2011

I used to get vertigo on a few times per year basis. My doctor never figured out what caused it, but guessed that it was either (or some combination of) 1) bouncebacks from migraine headaches and/or 2) congestion in my ears from seasonal allergies. I take a decongestant now during allergy season. Since you've described having both headache and a possible cold, one of these could be culprit.

I think you should keep your appointment to set your own mind at ease, but I doubt your doctor will find out what caused your vertigo in one appointment with no other tests--unless she looks in your ears and finds that you've got congestion there. Does your head feel "full"?
posted by gladly at 1:30 PM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: I had a bout of "benign paroxysmal positional vertigo" a couple of years ago -- but it was only diagnosed as "benign" after an ENT had examined me thoroughly.

Vertigo can be a sign of a brain tumor, a tumor in the inner ear (I think the acoustic neuromas you've mentioned above), Ménière's disease, or nothing at all. The really bad stuff can be ruled out, but it SHOULD be ruled out. In my case each was specifically tested for and ruled out (I don't remember the criteria, but it all made sense at the time -- "if you had X you'd have Y symptom which we ruled out with Z test".)

Your doctor should not be "laughing at you" about this. Multiple health care professionals took my vertigo very seriously.
posted by endless_forms at 1:31 PM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: Yes, please look up benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) before you freak out. It's super common. It's basically when the crystals in your ear become lodged where they shouldn't be. It's harmless but annoying. The spinning feeling occurs when you move your head a certain way (especially if you move it quickly).

There are exercises you can do to make the crystals move back where they should be. Specifically look at the Epley, Semont and Brandt-Daroff exercises. When I had a particularly annoying bout with BPPV almost a year ago, these exercises helped make it go away.
posted by Falwless at 1:33 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

And, as you've already discovered, any normal person can quickly be turned into a cyberchondriac after one google search of fairly harmless symptoms. Be careful.
posted by Falwless at 1:37 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

This sounds a hell of a lot like benign positional vertigo, but if you're unhappy with how you're being treated by your doctor, you should see another doctor.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:47 PM on August 19, 2011

Best answer: 01. Make an appointment with a new ENT, ideally one who specializes in the inner ear

01a. if you are in the NY Metro area I can recommend an excellent doctor

02. While you are waiting for your appointment day to arrive, look up "Epley maneuver" videos on youtube

03. do the exercises 3-4 times a day every day before your appointment

04. whether or not the exercises help, tell your doctor on the day of the appointment that you have tried them

nthing that this sounds like BPPV more than anything else. I guess it could also be Meniere's but you would have more recognizable symptoms than just vertigo.
posted by elizardbits at 2:10 PM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate the speed of the responses. The answers seem consistent. From your comments, it seems that it is an important symptom, and that the doctor will likely be able to investigate why it is happening (as opposed to just waiting to see if it gets worse or goes away). I'll likely use eldiem's script and avoid mentioning my cell-phone-tumor idea. It's good to have confirmed that people think it's worth it to deal with it now.

Thanks. All the answers have been helpful. I marked as "best" the ones with something that specifically stuck with me. (It's interesting to hear your story astapasta24, as I am likely to be fighting off that respiratory infection my coworker had.)

On preview, I'll check out those exercises, elizardbits. I'm in Oakland, and I think Kaiser will make me go to the GP before seeing a specialist. Thanks to you and to everyone.
posted by slidell at 2:22 PM on August 19, 2011

I had a spell of BPPV a while back. It was especially bad for about three weeks and then went away. The vertigo was worse if I looked up or turned my head quickly. I tried doing the Epley Manuver on myself a couple of times but don't know if that made a difference or not.
posted by tamitang at 4:51 PM on August 19, 2011

Response by poster: Back from the doctor. He said most likely BPPV. He said the cold was likely contributing to some inflammation (but that really, medical science isn't 100% sure what causes it). He did do some quick balance and vision tests to rule out some things and said if it wasn't better by the middle of next week, to come back and they'd do some blood tests to rule out some other possibilities. I did bring up the cell phone theory after all, to ask how he was ruling that out, and he smothered a smile but explained why he thought it was unlikely. Thanks again!
posted by slidell at 5:35 PM on August 19, 2011

Definitely try the Epley maneuver- you may have to repeat it a few times over a few days for it to work. If you continue to have symptoms, see if you can find a PT in your area who specializes in vestibular rehab. Vertigo or vestibular (inner ear) problems can be treated- generally with the Epley or other maneuvers and sometimes simple exercises.
posted by bookrach at 5:49 PM on August 19, 2011

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