Cervical vertigo is a controversial entity in the world of balance and vestibular disorders. It has generally been a diagnosis of exclusion when a patient is feeling dizzy but has no diagnosable pathology in the inner ear or brain.
The reality is that problems in the cervical spine are commonly linked to feelings of imbalance and disequilibrium. Cervical spine problems are rarely tied to the spinning rotational vertigo of someone having inner ear pathology. Most people with cervical “vertigo” really have which can include feelings of being really off balance, shaky, or a tilt like feeling of motion.
A 2018 study looked at how a degenerative problem in the neck can be associated with a diagnosis of cervical vertigo:
The study looked at patients with neck and arm pain related to cervical disc problems presenting for surgery. The patients were divided into patients with and without a complaint of vertigo. The patients with vertigo were examined to rule out other causes of vertigo like vestibular neuritis, benign positional vertigo, or stroke.
The research team examined the discs from patients with vertigo, without vertigo, and a control group of cadavers with no disc degeneration. The findings were really interesting.
In patients with vertigo, there are large increases in mechanical receptors in the degenerated discs compared to the patients without vertigo, and to the control group. These Ruffini Corpuscles help detect movement and position from your joints and muscles to help tell your brain what your joint is doing in space. Free nerve fibers are responsible for transmission of stimuli usually associated with pain. You can see the distribution below:
As expected, the patients with neck pain only, and neck pain with vertigo have a similar increases of free nerve fibers compared to controls. That’s probably why their neck is hurting.
However, a big reason why this study is interesting is because many people in the world of rehab and manual medicine would usually associate dizziness with a decrease in mechanical receptors in their spine, not an increase.
So what gives?
We don’t know exactly what this means, but it’s possible that increased density of these receptors may be transmitting excessive or erroneous information to the brain about the joint position.
The same group did a follow up study after they had performed disc surgeries on these patients. You can see the link to the study below:
During the study, they performed surgery on 50+ patients and 25 patients refused the surgery and received basic physical therapy and cervical collar recommendations. You can see the results below:
You can see that the patients who had the neck surgery showed clear and long lasting improvements in both neck pain and dizziness compared to the conservative group which implied that the degenerated disc was the probable source of bad sensory information to the brain.
So Is Surgery the Right Answer for Cervical Dizziness?
Maybe for some cases. If you have radiating arm pain with weakness tied to a badly herniated disc, then surgery might be able to help resolve both complaints, but there’s still a lot of research that needs to be done. Surgery is a BIG deal, and generally reserve that for really bad herniation cases with clear signs of neurological deficit like weakness, loss of reflexes, and atrophy of muscle.
The good news is there are a lot of ways to address cervical dizziness beyond routine physical therapy, and they have really great outcomes. One method is by improving the curve in the neck. A randomized trial of curve based rehab compared to routine physical therapy showed significant improvements in neck pain and dizziness at 1 year.
You can read some more about cervical curves and dizziness at this link:
There’s also numerous cases of cervical dizziness that have no signs of degeneration in their spine. This is especially prevalent in patients with dizziness after whiplash and head injury in young athletes. These patients seem to do well when we focus on the upper neck where the injury is likely to affect the ligaments of the craniocervical junction.
Long story short, degeneration of the cervical spine doesn’t have to be a sentencing for dizziness. It’s a risk factor, but it can be modified with the application of effective conservative interventions for the neck.