Headache and Dizziness: How Concerned Should You Be?

Quincy AdamMigraine Learn

Headaches and dizziness often go hand in hand. It’s a potentially debilitating one-two punch that can restrict your productivity. Many migraine sufferers also experience the symptoms of mild to moderate dizziness and vertigo—many of who have migraines with aura.

So, should you be concerned? If dizziness is a symptom of a migraine, you may be in for an unpleasant several hours or days.

However, if you don’t have a history of migraines, your headache and dizziness may be indicators of something far more serious and potentially life-threatening. They may be signs of a secondary headache, and your symptoms are your body’s way of telling you that you have an injury, illness or underlying medical condition that requires immediate attention.

So, take any necessary precautions: contact your physician … and don’t drive! If you think your situation is severe, seek emergency assistance.

The following explanation will help you better understand the correlation between headache and dizziness and what you need to do.

Migraine and Dizziness

According to the Vestibular Disorders Association, “Approximately 40% of migraine patients have some accompanying vestibular syndrome involving disruption in their balance and/or dizziness at one time or another.”1 Suffice it to say, migraines are a common cause of dizziness! The condition can range from mild to severe and even include a variety of additional symptoms.

Symptoms—In its mildest form, you may only feel slightly lightheaded and unsteady on your feet. Or you could experience vertigo—that sense that the whole room is spinning—most common with basilar and vestibular migraines. Because the cause is not well understood, diagnosis is often difficult. While dizziness may be the result of inner ear problems, migraine-related dizziness is more apt to be a result of anxiety, depression, low blood pressure, chemical imbalances and more.

Also accompanying dizziness and vertigo are additional symptoms, including:

  • Reduced coordination
  • Confusion
  • Temporary vision impairment
  • Double vision
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • Short-term hearing loss
  • Nausea and vomiting

Dizziness, as well as other symptoms, can begin in Phase 1 of a migraine (Prodrome) and continue through Phase 2 (Aura) and Phase 3 (Attack). A few migraine sufferers even experience mild dizziness in Phase 4 (Postdrome). All told, the symptoms may last anywhere from hours to days.

Treatment—When symptoms manifest, follow some simple first steps:

  • Sit or lie down
  • If you need to stand up, do so slowly and avoid sudden changes in your position
  • Avoid bright, glaring lights
  • Stay hydrated

Medical treatment focuses on relieving accompanying pain and nausea, which is often accomplished with over-the-counter, non-prescription remedies such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs). If your doctor prescribes additional medications, be sure to discuss any potential side effects. The drugs he or she might prescribe include:

  • Triptans, which narrow the brain’s blood vessels, reducing swelling
  • Beta blockers (blood pressure medications)
  • Anti-seizure medications, such as topiramate
  • Anti-emetics for nausea, such as chlorpromazine
  • Anti-depressants

Biofeedback and acupuncture may also help relieve or mitigate a headache and associated dizziness.

But the best way to prevent the dizziness and vertigo accompanying a migraine is to focus on preventive therapies and medications. Discuss your options and any possible migraine triggers with your healthcare providers.

Secondary Headaches and Dizziness

Because illness, trauma and underlying medical conditions cause secondary headaches, any accompanying dizziness and vertigo may indicate a more serious disorder requiring professional care. Among the more common causes of dizziness associated with a secondary headache are:

  • Blood pressure (high or low)—both hypertension (high blood pressure) and hypotension (low blood pressure) can bring on headaches, dizziness, nausea and blurred vision.
  • Trauma—In the case of a concussion headache, you may also experience dizziness, confusion, sensory problems and sleepiness.
  • Stroke—with a transient ischemic attack or cerebrovascular accident (stroke), an artery supplying oxygenated blood to the brain becomes damaged and deprives the brain of oxygen.
  • Dehydration—Alcohol, vomiting, diarrhea, heat stroke, diabetes and adrenal gland disorders all can dehydrate your body and cause headaches, muscle cramps, dizziness, fainting and more symptoms.
  • Hypoglycemia—Headaches and dizziness often occur when blood sugar levels are low.
  • Heart attack—Along with chest pain, sweating, arm pain, fainting, nausea and vomiting, you can experience a headache and dizziness.

While migraines may be causing your dizziness, you do not want to take chances. Your symptoms may also be a result of another condition. If you’re not sure of the cause, seek medical care. To help your physician diagnose your condition, report all your symptoms.

1 “Vestibular Migraine (a.k.a. Migraine Associated Vertigo or MAV).” http://vestibular.org/migraine-associated-vertigo-mav. Accessed March 31, 2016.