Vestibular Migraine: Kristen Steenerson, MD
What are the diagnostic criteria for vestibular migraine?
The criteria for vestibular migraine were developed jointly by the Barany Society and the International Headache Society in 2012. As vestibular migraine was still a newly accepted diagnosis at that time, strict diagnostic criteria were developed to establish universal research standards. As a result, many patients who have vestibular migraine may not fit into the classic criteria established over seven years ago. As the current criteria stand, patients are required to have at least five moderate to severe attacks of vertigo (defined as any hallucination of movement, not just spinning) lasting five minutes up to 72 hours at a time. With these attacks, migrainous features such as headache, photophobia, phonophobia or visual aura must be present half of the time. Finally, a previous or current history of more classically understood migraine helps to clinch the diagnosis.
What are common clinical signs and symptoms for patients with suspected vestibular migraine?
Patients with vestibular migraine typically have attacks of spinning, tilting, rocking, sway and imbalance. These are usually spontaneous, but can be linked to stress, poor sleep, dehydration, skipping exercise and meals. In between attacks, it is very typical for patients to have hypersensitivity to motion, sound, light, smells and medications. When evaluated by physicians, many of these patients are considered normal. However, with a keen eye, physicians will notice vestibular migraine patients have increased head motion sensitivity, visual motion sensitivity, and postural imbalance with exaggerated sway on occasion compared to patients without VM.
Are there specific vestibular tests that you find helpful for diagnosing vestibular migraine?
Unfortunately, there are still no gold standard diagnostic tests for vestibular migraine. Some interesting studies have been published highlighting some patterns in vestibular testing that may be helpful, but these are still in nascent stages and of uncertain generalizability. I find it still very useful to order the full battery of audiovestibular tests to make sure other vestibular disorders have been considered, especially Meniere’s Disease, due to the considerable overlap in symptoms.
What management strategies are most helpful?
There are two main approaches to management: prevention and rescue.
- Prevention focuses on reducing the total number of attacks and frequency of attacks that occur. A good prevention plan will reduce severity and frequency by 50 percent; it is rare that patients will see complete resolution of attacks. Prevention plans include lifestyle changes, medications and physical therapy. Lifestyle changes can be very effective in most patients and may be all that is needed. For lifestyle, we use the mnemonic SEEDS: Sleep, Exercise, Eating, Dehydration and Stress management. Regular sleep, exercise, drinking water (avoiding dehydrating drinks like caffeine/alcohol) and eating schedules can be helpful in reducing triggers for migraine attacks. Stress management is also a key lifestyle modification that comes in different forms for different people: meditation, mindfulness, talk therapy, exercise, work modifications and sometimes medications. Medications used for prevention are borrowed from the migraine headache literature. These can range from over-the- counter nutraceuticals such as magnesium and riboflavin to prescription medications such as antihypertensives, antidepressants, and anti-epileptic medications. Vestibular physical therapy can help desensitize the brain to head/body motion and visual motion to help reduce triggering of attacks.
- Rescue focuses on reducing the duration and severity of an attack when it occurs. Medications typically used include anti-nausea, anti-inflammatory, anti-migraine, antihistamine and anxiolytic properties that have dual purpose as vestibular suppressants. These medications must be used with caution as they are not intended to be used long term and can have long term side effects. They are very safe if used a few times a month.
Are medications available for vestibular migraine?
In the United States, we commonly use already-established medications used in migraine headaches. These can range from over-the- counter nutraceuticals such as magnesium and riboflavin to prescription medications such as antihypertensives, antidepressants, and anti-epileptic medications. These are generally effective, but can sometimes require trialling a few different ones before a patient finds relief. There are no randomized controlled trials that support one medication over another in vestibular migraine in the United States. Europe and other countries have trials supporting the medications flunarizine and cinnarizine, but these are not available in the United States..
Is vestibular migraine treated differently than other migraines?
Yes and no. In many ways the treatments are similar. Due to vestibular migraine’s unique motion sensitivity and balance difficulties, there is a singular role for vestibular therapy that is not commonly seen in more typical migraine. As more studies are completed, there may be evidence of unique pathophysiologic processes for vestibular migraine compared to migraine headaches, which may implicate emphasis on different types of medications, but this is yet to be definitively established.
Do you recommend vestibular rehabilitation?
Yes. In the hands of an experienced vestibular therapist, I find that many vestibular migraineurs improve in terms of balance and motion sensitivities. There are severe cases where even the most gentle of ocular motor or balance exercises exceed the threshold of what a patient can tolerate. For those individuals, we will usually attempt lifestyle and medication interventions first before trying vestibular therapy.
What would you want the general public to know about vestibular migraine?
- Vestibular migraine is incredibly common. Up to three percent of the general public has vestibular migraine.
- It is important to recognize that headaches do not need to be a prominent feature in order to be diagnosed with vestibular migraine.
- It is likely an inherited disorder that can become active with certain environmental factors such as stress, hormone fluctuations (e.g. menopause/perimenopause) and irregular sleep/eating/exercise/drinking schedules.
What is your overall key take home message for providers working with patients with suspected vestibular migraine?
Vestibular migraine, like other forms of migraine, is an episodic, neurologic, hypersensitivity disorder. Central nervous system and peripheral nervous system pathways are preferentially affected, resulting in vestibular attacks of variegating types of motion and motion sensitivity. As these pathways can sometimes activate independent from pain pathways, vestibular migraineurs can have isolated vestibular events without headache, thus absence of headache should not dissuade the diagnosis. Lifestyle changes are paramount, medications can be helpful, and physical therapy can be useful for treatment in many afflicted patients.
Are there any other specialties you’ve found helpful to include in a vestibular migraine patient’s plan of care?
Due to known connections between the vestibular circuits and the emotional circuits of the central nervous system, most patients experience an increase in anxiety and/or depression related to their vestibular migraine. Attacks are unpredictable and frightening and if suboptimally controlled can trigger maladaptive coping such as panic attacks, hypervigilance and catastrophization. Due to the connection to mood changes, psychological support such as talk therapy and meditation can be beneficial for coping with this distressing disorder.
Kristen Steenerson is a board-certified neurologist with fellowship training in otoneurology. After graduating cum laude from Claremont McKenna College where she was honored as an All-American lacrosse defensive player, she continued on to medical school at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah. She then proceeded to Mayo Clinic in Arizona for neurology residency and a fellowship in otoneurology at Barrow Neurological Institute. Dr. Steenerson joined Stanford with positions in both Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and Neurology with the goal of jointly addressing the junction of inner ear and brain disorders.