What is vestibular neuritis?

Vestibular neuritis is a disorder that affects the nerve of the inner ear called the vestibulocochlear nerve. This nerve sends balance and head position information from the inner ear to the brain. When this nerve becomes swollen (inflamed), it disrupts the way the information would normally be interpreted by the brain.

Vestibular neuritis can occur in people of all ages, but is rarely reported in children.

The vestibulocochlear nerve sends balance and head position information from the inner ear (see left box) to the brain. When the nerve becomes swollen (right box), the brain can’t interpret the information correctly. This results in a person experiencing such symptoms as dizziness and vertigo.

What are the symptoms of vestibular neuritis?

Symptoms include:

  • Sudden, severe vertigo (spinning/swaying sensation)
  • Dizziness
  • Balance difficulties
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Concentration difficulties

Vestibular neuritis and labyrinthitis are closely related disorders. Vestibular neuritis involves swelling of a branch of the vestibulocochlear nerve (the vestibular portion) that affects balance. Labyrinthitis involves the swelling of both branches of the vestibulocochlear nerve (the vestibular portion and the cochlear portion) that affects balance and hearing. The symptoms of labyrinthitis are the same as vestibular neuritis plus the additional symptoms of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and/or hearing loss.

Generally, the most severe symptoms (severe vertigo and dizziness) only last a couple of days, but while present, make it extremely difficult to perform routine activities of daily living. After the severe symptoms lessen, most patients make a slow, but full recovery over the next several weeks (approximately three weeks). However, some patients can experience balance and dizziness problems that can last for several months.

What causes vestibular neuritis?

Researchers think the most likely cause is a viral infection of the inner ear, swelling around the vestibulocochlear nerve (caused by a virus), or a viral infection that has occurred somewhere else in the body. Some examples of viral infections in other areas of the body include herpes virus (causes cold sores, shingles, chickenpox), measles, flu, mumps, hepatitis and polio. (Genital herpes is not a cause of vestibular neuritis.)