My vertigo was dismissed as anxiety for years

I experienced vertigo for four years before receiving treatment because my symptoms were dismissed and mistaken for anxiety, writes Emma Flint

For the last four years, I’ve suffered from vertigo. It’s been a constant sensation that has plagued my everyday life. Two months ago, the attacks became more frequent.

Only then did my GP start to take notice. Why did it take them so long to take my symptoms seriously?

Roughly 36% of women and people AFAB (assigned female at birth) suffer from vertigo, compared to only 22% of cisgender men.1 And yet, many of us who suffer from the condition aren’t taken seriously — and can wait years for a diagnosis.

Vertigo is the sensation that you’re spinning around when you aren’t. It affects your balance and can last for a few seconds or even months.2

When I first visited my previous GP back in 2017, their immediate response was that I was suffering from labyrinthitis, which is when part of your inner ear becomes inflamed. It typically happens after having a virus, like a cold or the flu. Although vertigo can be a symptom of labyrinthitis, this diagnosis didn’t feel right to me.

The vertigo was affecting my ability to walk the dog, even to navigate the stairs safely, yet it was seen as something I needed to push through

I hadn’t been ill at all. In fact, the only notable health concern I’d experienced happened the day prior to my severe dizzy spell, when I had increased levels of anxiety. All of this was explained to my GP, but they decided that it had to be an acute onset of labyrinthitis.

My vertigo symptoms lasted for a month after that, during which time I returned to the doctor concerned that something more was going on. Once again, they told me it was labyrinthitis and that it can take months, sometimes even years, for this to go away.

Not only is that a scary piece of information to receive, but it also felt so dismissive – the vertigo was affecting my ability to walk the dog, even to navigate the stairs safely, yet it was seen as something I needed to push through.

Then, two years ago, I visited my current GP, who blamed my vertigo on anxiety. Although I’m an anxious person, I didn’t feel my anxiety was triggering this issue. Unfortunately, the doctor believed otherwise, and my antidepressant dose was increased.

The increase made no difference. The vertigo was still there, and now I had to deal with adjusting to a higher medication dose.

I was told nothing could help unless I suffered from nausea. I remember thinking at the time that this probably wasn’t true, but I felt uncomfortable arguing against my doctor

Vertigo is disorientating on its own and enough to trigger anxiety, but when you also have an anxiety disorder the two exacerbate one another. The more you focus on the dizziness, the more you panic, and the more you panic the more pronounced the dizziness becomes. It’s a never-ending cycle.

Unable to go on like this, I finally bit the bullet and returned to my GP, only this time I was greeted by a different doctor. She immediately suggested I be sent to an ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) Specialist, and that I take anti-vertigo medication.

Four years. That’s how long it took for someone to give me medication to combat my symptoms. Previously when I’d asked about vertigo medication, I was told nothing could help unless I suffered from nausea. I remember thinking at the time that this probably wasn’t true, but I felt uncomfortable arguing against my doctor.

It turns out, there is medication that does more than deal with the nausea, with one such medication being Betahistine. This is what I’m currently taking; it increases blood flow to help ease any fluid build-up that may be causing vertigo.3

I shouldn’t have had to keep demanding proper investigation over the course of years just to get where I am now

I have to take these tablets three times a day, ideally with food. So far, I’ve noticed they do make a difference, however, the vertigo is still there, albeit less intense.

As for my referral to the ENT specialist, I’m looking at a six-month waiting period because, apparently, my issue is only a general one and nothing that warrants quicker investigation. Although I appreciate referrals are currently backlogged in the UK, six months is too long for anyone to wait to be seen, especially when living with symptoms that impact your life so markedly.

Vertigo isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s life changing in many ways. From the moment you experience it, your GP should take you seriously. I shouldn’t have had to keep demanding proper investigation over the course of years just to get where I am now. No one should. Especially considering how common vertigo is.

If you’re living with vertigo and you’re left without answers, please don’t settle for that dismissal. It’s not fair that we have to fight to be believed, or that we have to suffer without hope of getting answers.

Featured image is an illustration of a person facing to the side, with their hair blown over their face as if they are spinning around. The background is a series of blue and white shapes that give a sense of movement

Page last updated November 2021

Emma Flint

Emma Flint is a genderfluid queer writer based in the West Midlands, who focuses on LGBTQIA+, mental health, and sexual welfare topics. Having spent most of her career writing about a variety of subjects to help gain better footing in a competitive industry, she now channels most of her time into creating queer fiction and inclusive journalism. Despite much progress, she still feels that these two industries are underrepresented in the mainstream, which she hopes to change in her own small way.

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References

  1. Kurre A, Straumann D, et all, Gender differences in patients with dizziness and unsteadiness regarding self-perceived disability, anxiety, depression, and its associations, BMC Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders, March 2012, vol 12, no 2 [online] (accessed 5th November 2021)
  2. NHS, Vertigo, NHS website, June 2020 [online] (accessed 5th November 2021)
  3. NHS, Betahistine, NHS website, August 2019 [online] (accessed 5th November 2021)

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