Lightheadedness

1 Lightheadedness Summary

Lightheadedness is a symptom in which the person feels that he/she is about to faint or being off balance. The person may experience being unsteady. It is often used synonymously with dizziness.

But, in lightheadedness, the person may not feel as if the surroundings are moving or spinning. It is caused by a decrease in the quantity of blood reaching the brain.

Lightheadedness often resolves or improves after a period of time or when the person lies down. When lightheadedness progresses, it may lead to fainting or syncope. It is a common condition and many people feel lightheaded from time to time.

Lightheadedness may be accompanied by other symptoms like:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Clouded vision
  • Loss of balance

Lightheadedness is not of concern and may improve within a period of time, in most of the cases. But in certain cases, it may be caused by an underlying medical condition. It often increases the risk of fall and hence caution should be applied if one feels lightheaded.

A sudden movement from a seated or lying position to standing position may lead to lightheadedness. The change in position reduces the flow of blood to the brain. Reduced blood flow to the brain drops the blood pressure, causing lightheadedness. Insufficient fluid intake and dehydration may lead to lightheadedness.

Other common causes of lightheadedness include allergies, cold, flu, low blood sugar, use of illegal drugs, dehydration caused by diarrhea and vomiting, fast breathing, anxiety or stress, and certain medications.

Lightheadedness may also be caused by more serious conditions like heart attack, internal bleeding, shock, and stroke. If lightheadedness follows the considerable loss of blood from the body, it is important to get doctor’s advice. Lightheadedness accompanied by symptoms of stroke or heart attack also warrants medical attention.

Some of the warning symptoms that calls for immediate medical attention include:

  • Facial drooping
  • Nausea
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Breathlessness
  • Sudden sweating
  • Vomiting

Lightheadedness that persists for more than a week, or worsens with time, should be brought to the notice of the physician.

Treatment of lightheadedness varies with the underlying condition. Specific treatments are recommended when caused by medical conditions.

Some of the home treatment methods that would be of help to relieve the symptom include:

  • Having plenty of fluids
  • Having sugary fluids or food
  • Drinking electrolyte drinks
  • Having low-salt diet
  • Lying down or sitting

Lying down brings the head to a lower position when compared to the rest of the body, enabling better flow of blood. Water pills, anti-nausea medications, antianxiety medications, balance therapy, psychotherapy, antibiotics, and surgical methods are suggested to control the condition, depending on the cause of lightheadedness.

Most form of lightheadedness can be prevented by:

  • Avoiding sudden changes in posture
  • Having plenty of water
  • Wearing sunglasses outdoors
  • Avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs

People who have lightheadedness should take adequate precautions like moving slowly and carefully, making house clutter-free, sitting as soon one feels lightheaded, eating a healthy diet, and getting adequate rest. Stress should be avoided as much as possible by practicing relaxation techniques.

2 Causes

Lightheadedness may be caused by some not-so-serious conditions and some serious conditions.

The most common causes of lightheadedness include:

A migraine – a migraine is a type of a headache often experienced as a throbbing pain on one side of the head. Increased sensitivity to light, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms of this condition, apart from lightheadedness. It is commonly associated with a migraine with aura, a type of a migraine.

Stress or anxiety – too much emotional or mental pressure leads to stress. Anxiety is a mild or severe feeling of unease. Many people feel find it hard to control the pressure in stress and anxiety. Lightheadedness is one of the physical symptoms associated with these conditions. Lightheadedness is commonly seen when the person starts breathing too fast due to stress or anxiety.

Hypoglycemia – hypoglycemia or low blood sugar level is characterized by a lack of energy to carry out the bodily activities. It is mostly associated with diabetes and may also be triggered by malnutrition, binge eating, and some medical conditions. Typical warning signs of hypoglycemia are feeling of hunger, shakiness, and lightheadedness.

Postural hypotension – postural hypotension is characterized by a sudden drop in blood pressure when one suddenly sits or stands. The sudden change in position and blood pressure leads to lightheadedness. It is commonly seen in elderly people and often resolves when the person lies down.

Dehydration – losing of more body fluids when compared to intake leads to dehydration. Loss of fluids affects the electrolyte balance of the body and leads to symptoms including lightheadedness. The person may also feel thirsty, tired, and develop dryness of mouth.

Heat exhaustion – this is a potentially serious condition that occurs when the body gets too hot due to exposure to the sun or strenuous physical exercise. Heat exhaustion leads to dehydration and lightheadedness and a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Vertebrobasilar insufficiency – this condition is characterized by reduced flow of blood to the back of the brain. Blockage of blood vessels that supply the back of brain lead to vertebrobasilar insufficiency.

Lightheadedness may also be caused by some less common causes including:

Severe illness – severe illness of disease that affects the whole body may lead to lightheadedness.

Use of illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco – using illegal drugs, alcohol, and tobacco is also associated with lightheadedness in many cases. Stopping or restricting the use of these substances help to relieve the symptom.

Certain medications – certain medications like antidepressants, which treat clinical depression, are known to cause lightheadedness. Some medications used in the control of blood pressure may also result in unsteady or unbalanced feeling.

Cardiac problems – certain heart problems like atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes irregular and abnormally fast heart rate, have lightheadedness as one of the symptoms. People with atrial fibrillation may feel breathless, tired, and lightheaded. These symptoms are often accompanied by tightness or pain in the chest.

Carbon monoxide poisoning – carbon monoxide present in the inhaled air may mix with a hemoglobin of blood and affect the supply of oxygen to tissues. Lightheadedness, dizziness, and shortness of breath are common symptoms of this condition.

3 Diagnosis and Treatment

Symptoms, medical history, and physical examination are the first steps in the diagnosis of lightheadedness and the underlying cause of the symptom. Prior to further diagnosis, the doctor will try to distinguish the condition from vertigo.

More tests and investigations recommended will depend on this analysis. Information on factors that worsen or trigger lightheadedness is of immense help in identifying the cause.

For example, questions like whether lightheadedness is triggered by a change in positions, and whether it resolves on its own help the doctor diagnose the underlying cause of the symptom.

The doctor may also ask about the associated symptoms including palpitations, heavy menstrual bleeding, breathlessness, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain, and fever.

The thorough physical examination is also a part of the diagnosis in which the vital signs provide important information on the cause. Checking blood pressure also helps to assess the fluid status.

This helps to see whether lightheadedness is caused by dehydration. Blood pressure is checked in both standing and lying down position. Physical examination is also based on the medical history of the patient.

Thus a woman with the heavy menstrual period will undergo a pelvic examination, while a patient with respiratory illness may have a thorough examination of lungs and heart. Imaging techniques and blood tests are recommended based on the suspected cause of dizziness.

Some of the common tests suggested are complete blood count, electrolyte levels, blood sugar levels, kidney function tests and thyroid tests. Common imaging techniques used are X-rays, CT scans, and MRI.

Lightheadedness is not a disease in itself, but a symptom of an underlying disease or condition. In most of the cases, it resolves on its own without any specific treatment. When caused by an underlying disease, treating the disease helps to alleviate this symptom.

Anxiety disorders that cause lightheadedness are controlled by specific medications. Relaxation and stress-reducing techniques may also be helpful in the same. Having plenty of water helps to control overheating of the body and dehydration, both of which can lead to lightheadedness.

Anti-nausea drugs help to reduce vomiting associated with dizziness. Intravenous fluids are suggested for people who have lost a significant amount of body fluids. Water pills, a diet containing low amounts of salt, antimigraine medications, and antibiotics are recommended, depending on the cause of the symptom.

Balance and psychotherapy are also used in the control of the symptom. Balance therapy includes specific exercises to help in better balance. Also known as vestibular rehabilitation, this therapy is commonly used for dizziness caused by inner ear problems.

Psychotherapy is suggested for those people whose dizziness is caused by anxiety disorders. Few lifestyle modifications may help to reduce the risks associated with dizziness. Try to avoid moving suddenly and ensure to have non-slip mats and rugs inside the house.

Caffeine and alcohol intake should be reduced. Try to have plenty of water to avoid dehydration. A healthy diet, enough sleep, and good relaxation also help in controlling this symptom.

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