Comparing Vertigo, Dizziness, and Disequilibrium

It’s not uncommon for individuals experiencing cervical issues to have other symptoms in addition to pain. Some patients will also experience issues with their balance or equilibrium. A standard term for feeling unsteady or “off-balance” is dizziness, however, what an individual may actually be experiencing is vertigo and/or disequilibrium. In this article, we will discuss why these various symptoms may relate to cervical issues and the importance of differentiating between the various sensations in order to arrive at a proper diagnosis.

Functions of the Cervical Region

The cervical area is rich with nerves that pass information between the brain and the rest of the body. Certain nerve endings called proprioceptors provide information from areas such as muscles, tendons, and skin, along with vestibular receptors in the ear. They pass information to the brain regarding where our body is in space, in addition to relaying information about body movements. Sometimes when a person experiences a head or neck injury such as whiplash, a concussion, or a misalignment of the spinal vertebrae, the ability of the sensory nerves to pass along vital information to the brain becomes hindered. While some may exhibit symptoms fairly soon after their injury, in some cases, balance issues may not show up for months afterward.


In order to receive effective treatment, it’s important to obtain a proper diagnosis. This is why it’s important for patients to accurately describe the sensations they are experiencing, rather than simply using the generic term of “dizziness”. Both their physician and their physical therapist will ask certain questions to zero in on their symptoms and will also likely conduct some tests to determine a patient’s specific issues.

Generally, a patient’s balance issues may fall into one or more of the following three categories:

Vertigo – A patient suffering from vertigo is likely to describe symptoms such as feeling as if the room is spinning even when they are immobile. A common vertigo issue is BPPV (benign paroxysmal positional vertigo). This is when a patient experiences “room spinning” sensations upon rising in the morning or tilting their head upward. The sensations may be mild or quite severe. While BPPV is technically considered an inner ear problem, it can be a condition that results from an injury such as whiplash.

Disequilibrium – This condition may occur in someone who is suffering from cervical spondylosis, an arthritic condition that may put pressure on one’s spinal cord, or another type of head or neck injury. Symptoms include sensations such as feeling as if the ground is tilting or coming closer. Others may feel they are floating above the ground, or they may have the feeling they are about to fall. A person suffering from disequilibrium may also feel simply somewhat unsteady on their feet or they may completely lose their sense of balance at times and be at risk for a fall.

Dizziness – A person experiencing a true sense of dizziness will feel lightheaded, perhaps even feeling as if they are about to faint. It’s possible for a person to feel dizzy from lack of food or from rising too fast, which is actually a symptom of low blood pressure. However, it also can be a symptom of a head or neck issue, especially when a patient experiences dizziness from turning their head and the sensation is accompanied by a headache and/or nausea.

Resolving Balance Issues with Vertigo

A sudden loss of balance that results in a person actually falling or feeling as if they are about to fall is a scary situation. This is why it is important to receive prompt medical attention to determine what is causing a person’s equilibrium issues. A physician will often prescribe physical therapy for their patients in order to treat issues with BPPV, as well as other balance or dizziness issues. Physical therapists are specially trained to work with these patients, providing them with specific exercises to retrain the brain, strengthen key muscles, and/or work on inner ear issues.

If you are having equilibrium problems and would like more information about physical therapy, please contact Cawley Rehab at 570-208-2787 or email us at: