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The Spins: Why Drinking Alcohol Can Make You Dizzy

What Are The Spins?

What is known as “the spins,” or severe dizziness can be caused by drinking too much alcohol.

Dizziness comes in two forms: lightheadedness and vertigo. Lightheadedness is the feeling that you are about to faint or pass out. It can improve if you sit, lay down, or lower your head. Extreme lightheadedness can lead to actual fainting and loss of consciousness. It may be associated with nausea and vomiting. Vertigo is the sensation that you or your surroundings are moving when no actual motion is occurring. You may lose your balance or feeling like you are going to fall or that you are tilting to the side, and walking can be difficult. Vertigo can also cause nausea or vomiting.

How Alcohol Causes the Spins

The presence of alcohol in the blood affects how the inner ear system works. There are three small fluid-filled structures called canals; the fluid is called endolymph. There is also a gelatinous structure called the cupula, which is filled with hair-like cells called stereocilia. When sober, moving around moves the endolymph, which distorts the shape of the cupula and moves the stereocilia, which send electrical signals to the brain regarding movement, balance, and more.

Cause of the Spins

However, when a person drinks, the system changes. Alcohol thins the blood, which creates a difference in density between the fluid in the canals and the cupula. The shape of the cupula is distorted in ways not associated with the person’s movement, orientation in space, or balance. The stereocilia tell the brain that the body is moving much more than it actually is, so the person may feel like the room is spinning or the ground is moving. This sensation can begin with a fairly low blood alcohol concentration (BAC); 0.08 percent is the legal cutoff, when it is no longer safe for someone to drive.

Continuing to Have The Spins May Indicate a Problem

Some people may drink a little bit and become dizzy, and for many, experiencing the spins is a deterrent to binge drinking very often. However, for many other people, changes in brain chemistry can lead to consistent abuse of, and eventual addiction to, alcohol.

There are several balance-related visual signs associated with intoxication, which may indicate whether or not a person has the spins and is drunk. These include:

  • Staggering or stumbling
  • Swaying while standing still
  • Being unable to sit up straight
  • Falling
  • Trouble standing up from sitting
  • Lack of focus or eye contact
  • Unusual walk

While these do not inherently indicate alcohol addiction or abuse, if a person is repeatedly observed to stumble, have trouble focusing on objects or people, or fall often, they may struggle with alcohol use disorder or binge drinking.

Other symptoms of AUD, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), include:

  • Inability to limit how much alcohol is consumed
  • Wanting to cut down on drinking, but being unable to do so
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from being hungover
  • Craving alcohol or having strong urges to drink
  • Skipping school, work, family obligations, or social events to drink
  • Struggling with work or school requirements due to being drunk or hungover
  • Continuing to drink despite physical, social, financial, and legal consequences
  • Drinking alcohol in unsafe situations
  • Developing a tolerance, or feeling like one must drink more to achieve the original effects
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms, including nausea, cravings, sweating, shaking, and anxiety when not drinking

Recognizing a problematic pattern of alcohol use is an important first step in the recovery process and getting treatment can provide the help you need on a path toward a healthier life.  

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