How loose ear crystals can cause vertigo and change lives overnight

Did you know that you have tiny crystals inside your ear? And that they play a huge role in helping you balance?  

If some of these crystals, called otoconia, or ear stones, become detached and flow into the inner ear, it can upset your sense of balance and cause vertigo.1 

If that happens, the first experience can be quite a shock, as Abby discovered early one morning. 

“I suddenly felt everything swirling around me,” she said. “It was as if I was going in circles and circles, and it was never stopping. I had to hold onto my bed, and I didn’t understand what was going on.” (Listen to Abby’s story here).

Concerned about her symptoms, Abby went to her nearest hospital. There, she was given an intravenous solution to minimize the swirling sensation and referred to a specialist for further evaluation. After undergoing several lab tests, she was diagnosed with a type of vertigo known as benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV, which is caused by those loose crystals. 

The loose crystals in the inner ear cause confusion in the vestibular system (Read also “Types of vertigo”).1 Your body becomes sensitive to head position changes that it would normally not respond to, and it’s this that makes you feel dizzy.1 This can happen, for instance, when looking up or down, going from lying to seated in bed, or when rolling over in bed.1 The unsteadiness of BPPV can be frightening and lead to falls, which are leading cause of fractures.2

“It scared me to even move my head slightly, because suddenly you feel your head is heavy and everything’s moving around,” said Abby. “I tended to grasp a table or a chair, just so I could tell myself, ‘I’m not moving. I’m not spinning. Everything is stable.’”

Fortunately, BPPV can be diagnosed and treated. BPPV is the most common cause of vertigo, accounting for over half of all cases.1 It is more common in women and people over 50, although it can occur at any age.1 Some cases are linked with head injuries, but sometimes there is no clear or obvious cause.1 

BPPV is often diagnosed via the Dix-Hallpike test (Read also “Diagnosing vertigo: which tests will your doctor use?”), which involves turning your head 45 degrees to one side, then quickly lying on your back with your head off the side of the table. If you experience vertigo during this test, you likely have BPPV.1 The doctor will also probably perform several ear examinations.1 Once diagnosed, there are treatments that can help.1

It’s also important to be aware of triggers – and to avoid them.3 

For example, Abby is careful about the types of activities she engages in. This includes avoiding sudden, fast, and circular movements – like spinning and amusement park rides – and making sure she’s prepared for road trips that may involve winding paths. Even wearing earphones for too long and drinking too much coffee can be a problem for her. For other people, bike riding, or keeping the head in the same position for a long time, such as in the dentist chair, can also bring on an attack.

Through her treatment and avoiding triggers, Abby now has her BPPV under control, and her self-assurance has returned.

“It gives me the confidence that I can go through my day without the possibility of a severe vertigo attack,” she says. 

It is incredible that these microscopic crystals have such a vital role to play in our sense of balance and can cause such upheaval when dislodged. But with an accurate diagnosis of BPPV, it is likely that balance can be restored, and attacks of vertigo reduced.1 


  1. Palmeri R, Kumar A. Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Updated 26 December, 2022. 
  2. Cleveland Clinic. Vertigo. May 9, 2023. Accessed February 28, 2024.
  3. Dizzy & Vertigo Institute. Vertigo Triggers and How To Deal With Them. April 30, 2021. Accessed February 28, 2024.