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Chronic Dizziness and Anxiety
Effect of Course of Illness on Treatment Outcome
Jeffrey P. Staab, MD, MS; Michael J. Ruckenstein, MD, MSc Objective: To investigate the hypothesis that the effi-
Interventions: Patients with CSD were treated with an
cacy of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for SSRI according to an established protocol for at least 8 chronic subjective dizziness (CSD) and anxiety depends weeks or until they proved intolerant to medication.
on the longitudinal pattern of the patients’ symptoms.
Main Outcome Measures: Changes in dizziness and
Design: Prospective cohort study.
anxiety as measured by the Clinical Global Impressions–Improvement scale.
Setting: Tertiary care, multidisciplinary, balance center.
Results: Patients with the otogenic and psychogenic pat-
Patients: Eighty-eight consecutive patients treated with
terns of illness had a more complete response to SSRI treat- an SSRI for CSD and anxiety between 1998 and 2003. All ment than did patients in the interactive group (PϽ.01).
patients were referred for evaluation of unremitting dizzi- Rates of SSRI intolerance were similar for all 3 groups.
ness. They entered SSRI treatment after comprehensive neu-rotologic and psychiatric evaluations revealed a syn- Conclusions: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
drome of CSD with accompanying anxiety. Patients were are effective for patients with CSD and anxiety. How- separated into 3 groups according to their longitudinal pat-terns of illness: (1) otogenic, defined as primary neuroto- ever, patients with clinically significant anxiety predat- logic conditions triggering secondary anxiety disorders; (2) ing neurotologic illness may require more intensive in- psychogenic, defined as anxiety disorders alone causing diz- ziness; and (3) interactive, defined neurotologic condi-tions exacerbating preexisting anxiety.
Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2005;131:675-679 DESPITEADVANCESINNEU- tivesensationsofimbalance.Asopposed
plain that the inside of their head is spin- ning or that they are swaying when stand- ing still. These symptoms are pervasive and ziness remains primarily predicated on the typically exacerbated in crowded environ- clinical history.1-3 Obtaining an accurate his- ments with rich visual fields, such as gro- cery stores and shopping malls. This clini- define vestibular and nonvestibular etiolo- psychogenic dizziness, although recent re- gies of dizziness (eg, Ménière’s disease, be- search suggests that psychiatric illnesses are just as likely to be consequences of diz- vestibular loss, presyncope, and anxiety).
Diagnostic testing may be used to support a specific diagnosis, but the clinical his- tory remains preeminent in establishing the disorders, we recently studied the longi- tudinal course of illness in a large cohort Author Affiliations:
nonvertiginous forms of dizziness is a clini- cal syndrome of chronic subjective dizzi- Neck Surgery and The BalanceCenter, University of tients with this condition describe vague, active. Patients in the otogenic group had Financial Disclosure: None.
histories of transient or current neuroto- (REPRINTED) ARCH OTOLARYNGOL HEAD NECK SURG/ VOL 131, AUG 2005 2005 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.
logic illnesses (eg. vestibular neuronitis, Ménière’s dis- amination, audiometric assessment, balance function tests, and ease), but they developed persistent dizziness and anxi- magnetic resonance imaging of the head. Patients whose neu- ety for the first time after their acute neurotologic event.
rotologic examination results demonstrated CSD accompa- Patients in the psychogenic group had primary anxiety nied by clinically significant anxiety were referred for psychi- disorders (eg, panic or generalized anxiety disorder) that Chronic subjective dizziness was identified as follows: presented with prominent dizziness in the absence of anyneurotologic illness. Patients in the interactive group had v Persistent (Ն3 months) sensations of nonvertiginous diz- preexisting anxiety disorders or an anxiety diathesis (eg, ziness, light-headedness, heavy-headedness, or subjective im- self-limited periods of excessive worry) without dizzi- ness. The developed chronic dizziness and an exacerba- Chronic (Ն3 months) hypersensitivity to one’s own mo- tion or to movements of objects in the environment; tion of their psychiatric condition after they acquired a v Exacerbation of symptoms in settings with complex vi- sual stimuli (eg, grocery stores) or when performing precision Patients in the otogenic group tended to develop only visual tasks (eg, reading, using a computer); minor anxiety symptoms (eg, phobic behaviors related v Absence of active physical neurotologic illnesses, medi- just to their dizziness), whereas those in the psycho- cal conditions, or medications that may cause dizziness; genic and interactive groups had more serious anxiety v Normal radiographic images of the brain; and disorders (eg, fully developed panic disorder). Psychi- v Normal or nondiagnostic findings on balance function tests.
atric factors appeared to play an integral role in sustain- Patients with previous neurotologic illnesses may have had ing patients’ dizziness in all 3 groups, regardless of the chronic vestibular deficits on balance function test results (eg, triggering events. This result was echoed in a recent patients with previous bouts of vestibular neuronitis whose re- study,10 which found that high levels of anxiety in the sults showed fully compensated, unilateral caloric weakness).
early aftermath of a bout of vestibular neuronitis pre- These patients were included in the present study because their dicted a chronic course of dizziness. Thus, the longitu- physical neurotologic findings could not explain the full ex- dinal history of medical-psychiatric interactions ap- tent of their long-standing symptoms (ie, CSD). Furthermore, pears to determine the severity and persistence of dizziness a previous investigation12 found that treating such patients withvestibular suppressants (eg, meclizine or benzodiazepines) was and anxiety in this patient population.
ineffective. Clinically significant anxiety symptoms included In 2 studies,11,12 we found that selective serotonin re- panic attacks with dizziness or light-headedness, avoidance of uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) were effective for patients with situations associated with dizziness, expectations of cata- chronic dizziness and major or minor anxiety and de- strophic outcomes when dizzy (eg, crashing the car), and ex- pression. Similarly, Horii et al13 reported that the SSRI paroxetine hydrochloride reduced chronic dizziness and In a previous study,16 the neurotologist’s ability to detect depression. However, all patients did not respond equally these symptoms was validated against a widely used psychiat- well to treatment. Some enjoyed a complete remission ric questionnaire and a formal psychiatric evaluation. In the of their symptoms, whereas others achieved only partial present investigation, psychiatric assessments followed the Struc- relief, and 25% were unable to tolerate a therapeutic dose tured Clinical Interview for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manualof Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition,17 which is the standard for of medication.11,12 These results suggest that SSRIs may psychiatric diagnosis in clinical research.
be an important advance in the treatment of patients withthis challenging disorder, but investigations to find clini-cal predictors of incomplete medication response or in- LONGITUDINAL COURSE OF ILLNESS
tolerance are needed to improve therapeutic outcomes.
We undertook the present study to investigate the hy- The authors independently reviewed patients’ longitudinal his- pothesis that the longitudinal patterns of illness (ie, oto- tories to identify the first episodes of dizziness and the illness(es) genic, psychogenic, and interactive) would predict the responsible for those symptoms. Patients were classified as oto- efficacy and tolerability of SSRI treatment. We hypoth- genic, psychogenic, or interactive on the basis of the following esized that patients with a psychogenic pattern of ill- criteria.9 Patients whose first symptoms of dizziness were caused ness would have a better therapeutic result with SSRIs by physical neurotologic illnesses that were documented in pre- because these medications are a first-line treatment for vious medical records or identified retrospectively using strictcriteria1-4 were classified as otogenic. These patients had no psy- the types of anxiety disorders encountered in this chiatric history or clinically significant anxiety symptoms pre- group.14,15 We also hypothesized that patients with the dating the onset of dizziness. Patients whose first symptoms interactive pattern of illness would be the least tolerant of dizziness coincided with clinically significant anxiety, usu- of SSRIs, because common adverse effects of these medi- ally panic disorder, were classified as psychogenic. These pa- cations often mimic symptoms experienced by patients tients had no histories of vertigo or ataxia, and previous medi- with neurotologic illnesses and anxiety (eg, nausea, rest- cal records, when available, revealed no physical cause for their symptoms. Patients whose first symptoms of dizziness werecaused by physical neurotologic illnesses that were docu-mented in previous medical records or identified retrospec- tively using strict criteria1-4 were classified as interactive. How-ever, these patients had histories of anxiety disorders or a strong CLINICAL EVALUATION
anxiety diathesis (eg, anxious temperaments [often describedas worrywarts] that predated their dizziness). The physical neu- All patients in the study cohort were evaluated by a neurotolo- rotologic illnesses exacerbated their anxiety, which then sus- gist (M.J.R.) and a psychiatrist (J.P.S.). The protocol-driven neu- tained sensations of dizziness long after the acute vertiginous rotologic evaluation included a clinical history, physical ex- (REPRINTED) ARCH OTOLARYNGOL HEAD NECK SURG/ VOL 131, AUG 2005 2005 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.
Table 1. Dosing Schedule for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
Target Daily Dose
Subsequent Daily Increases
Daily Dose, mg
by Week 4, mg
(2- to 4-wk Intervals), mg
Daily Dose, mg
no change; 5, minimally worse; 6, much worse; and 7, very muchworse.18 The CGI-I is one of the most widely used outcome mea- Inclusion criteria for this study were (1) male and female pa- sures in psychopharmacologic research. Its principal advantages tients 18 years and older; (2) a finding of CSD and clinically are its simplicity and validated applicability across a wide range significant anxiety on neurotologic evaluation; (3) diagnosis of illnesses, including anxiety disorders. In a previous medica- of a major or minor anxiety disorder on psychiatric assess- tion trial for patients with chronic dizziness,11 we found that the ment; and (4) consensus of the authors on the longitudinal CGI-I successfully tracked changes in physical symptoms of diz- course of illness. Excluded were patients with histories of trau- ziness, as measured by the Dizziness Handicap Inventory (DHI), matic brain injuries or autonomic dysregulation (eg, neuro- and anxiety and depressive symptoms, as measured by standard- cardiogenic [vasovagal] syncope, postural orthostatic tachy- ized psychiatric questionnaires. Specifically, a CGI-I score of 1 cardia syndrome, or orthostatic intolerance).
corresponded to an end point DHI total score less than 5 and endpoint psychiatric symptoms in the normal range (ie, complete or DATA COLLECTION
nearly complete remission of all symptoms with treatment). ACGI-I score of 2 corresponded to a 50% or greater reduction in Data for this study were collected prospectively and abstracted both DHI and psychiatric symptom scores (ie, a clinically mean- from a research database that was established when our balance ingful improvement in symptoms but not remission). The CGI-I center opened in July 1998. Details have been described previ- scores of 3 or higher corresponded to minimal changes or wors- ously.9,12 The database contains anonymous information on all ening of DHI and/or psychiatric symptoms scores. By conven- patients who have undergone a psychiatric examination as part tion, CGI-I end point scores of 1 or 2 are considered positive out- of a protocol-driven, multidisciplinary evaluation for dizziness.
comes in medication trials. Scores of 3 or higher indicate no clear Database entries have been stripped of all uniquely identifying, benefit or worsening with treatment. In the present study, as in personal information. The remaining data include general de- our previous clinical trial, CGI-I scores were based on the change mographics, presenting symptoms, duration of illness, medical in severity of both dizziness and psychiatric symptoms.
and psychiatric diagnoses (including a designation of the ill-ness first associated with dizziness), treatment histories before STATISTICAL ANALYSIS
referral, therapies prescribed by the authors, and ratings of clini-cal outcomes. Because the database contains no unique identi- Patient demographics, categorical and mean outcome scores, fying information and is maintained separately from all medical and rates of medication intolerance were compared across the records, the Institutional Review Board at the University of Penn- 3 groups. Patient demographics were compared using ␹2, Fisher sylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, classified this study exact, and t tests as appropriate. Treatment outcomes and rates as exempt from human subjects review.
of medication intolerance were evaluated as follows. The ratesof a positive response (CGI-I score of 1 or 2) vs no benefit (CGI-I TREATMENT
score of Ն3 or medication intolerant) were compared using the ␹2 test to determine the overall treatment outcome. The effi- Patients were treated with 1 of the 5 SSRIs marketed in the United cacy of treatment was compared categorically for the intent- States at the time of the study (sertraline hydrochloride, fluox- to-treat cohort of all 88 patients and for the 72 patients who etine hydrochloride, paroxetine, citalopram hydrobromide, or completed 8 weeks of therapy to determine the categorical out- escitalopram oxalate). The initial choice of medication was comes. In this analysis, rates of remission (CGI-I score of 1) vs guided primarily by patient preference and history of SSRI ex- partial response (CGI-I score of 2) vs no benefit (CGI-I score posure. The dosing schedule is given in Table 1.12 Older pa-
of Ն3 or medication intolerant) were compared using the ␹2 tients and those who expressed concern about medication ad- test. The mean CGI-I scores for treatment completers in each verse effects started therapy with lower doses. Treatment was group were analyzed with pairwise t tests. Rates of medication continued for a minimum of 8 weeks or until medication in- intolerance were compared using the ␹2 test.
tolerance was established. Patients who could not tolerate the Statistical analyses were performed with the SAS System for first choice of medication were given a second SSRI trial. Those Windows, release 8.12 (SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC). Signifi- with troubling adverse effects from 2 SSRIs were declared medi- cance levels were PϽ.05 for all tests.
Treatment outcomes were rated with the Clinical Global Impres- Of the 88 patients included in this study, 28 had an oto- sions–Improvement (CGI-I) scale, a clinician-rated instrument genic pattern, 31 had a psychogenic pattern, and 29 had that scores changes in patients’ overall symptoms: 1 indicting very an interactive pattern of illness. There were 58 women much improved; 2, much improved; 3, minimally improved; 4, and 30 men with a mean ± SD age of 41 ± 12 years (age (REPRINTED) ARCH OTOLARYNGOL HEAD NECK SURG/ VOL 131, AUG 2005 2005 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.
Table 2. Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Treatment Outcome by Pattern of Illness for All Patients
Positive Response
No Benefit
Partial Response
No Response
Pattern of Illness
No. of Patients
(CGI-I Score of 1)
(CGI-I Score of 2)
(CGI-I Score of Ն3)
Abbreviation: CGI-I, Clinical Global Impressions–Improvement.
with a reduction in both dizziness and anxiety. The rea- Table 3. Mean Improvement for Patients Who Completed
sons for this excellent response are not entirely clear, be- Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor Treatment
cause SSRIs are not typically used to treat the types ofphobic symptoms most commonly seen in these pa- Pattern of Illness
No. of Patients
CGI-I Score, Mean ± SD
tients. It is possible that their low-level anxiety symp- toms responded to SSRI treatment, which indirectly im- proved their dizziness. However, the high percentage of patients with a complete remission of both dizziness andanxiety suggests that the SSRIs may have had a more di- Abbreviation: CGI-I, Clinical Global Impressions–Improvement.
rect effect on dizziness itself. Serotonin is present in thevestibular nuclei and affects the responsiveness of mo- range, 18-72 years); 77 (88%) of the cohort were white tion sensitive neural pathways from the vestibular nu- subjects and 11 (12%) were minority subjects. There were clei through the inferior olive to the nodulus and floc- no significant demographic differences between the 3 pat- culus of the cerebellum.19,20 These may be sites where SSRIs can directly decrease dizziness.
Table 2 gives the categorical results of SSRI treat-
Patients in the interactive group did not respond as ment for each group. No differences existed among the vigorously to SSRI treatment. Although they experi- 3 groups in overall response rates (ie, positive response enced a clear reduction in symptoms, significantly fewer vs no benefit) (␹2=2.95, PϾ.57) or medication intoler- patients experienced a full remission compared with the ance (␹2=2.95, PϾ.64). However, patients in the inter- other groups. The long-standing nature of their anxiety active group were significantly less likely to achieve full diathesis may have limited the extent to which they could remission and more likely to have a partial response to benefit from short-term, single-modality therapy. Pa- SSRI treatment. This difference held for both the intent- tients with an interactive pattern of illness may need ad- to-treat (␹2= 13.3, PϽ.01) and completer analyses junctive or alternative therapies—pharmacologic, psy- chotherapeutic, surgical, and rehabilitative—to completely Table 3 gives the group differences for mean CGI-I
resolve their symptoms. The specific nature of these in- scores among patients who completed treatment. The terventions awaits future research. In contrast to our ini- mean response of the interactive group was less robust tial hypothesis, patients in this group were no less tol- (higher CGI-I score) than the otogenic (t = 2.32, PϽ.03) erant of SSRIs than other patients in the study were.
or psychogenic (t=1.78, PϽ.054) group, although the lat- Limitations of this study include its uncontrolled de- ter did not reach statistical significance. There were no sign (ie, unblinded ratings, open-label medications), the differences in rates of remission or mean CGI-I scores use of 5 different medications in the SSRI class, and a lack between the otogenic and psychogenic groups.
of long-term outcome data. Uncontrolled clinical trialsmay bias results in favor of investigators’ hypotheses. In this study, concerns about possible bias are mitigated bythe fact that the outcomes did not reflect the initial hy- The results of this study show that SSRIs are effective for potheses. The excellent therapeutic response experi- patients with CSD and anxiety, regardless of the longi- enced by the otogenic group and the equal tolerability tudinal pattern of illness. However, the pattern of ill- of SSRIs across all 3 groups were not anticipated.
ness affected the magnitude of response and likelihood Investigators were free to choose among 5 different of remission. This finding reinforces the preeminence of SSRIs. This provided latitude to individualize therapy for the clinical history in caring for patients with dizziness.
study patients as described in the “Methods” section, but The history informs not only diagnosis but also expec- it prohibited conclusions about the benefits of individual medications. However, differential efficacy among the SS- In keeping with our initial hypothesis, the psycho- RIs has not been convincingly demonstrated in clinical trials genic group fared well, which is not surprising given that for any medical or psychiatric conditions; therefore, none SSRIs are first-line treatments for panic disorder and gen- would be expected for chronic dizziness and anxiety.
eralized anxiety disorder, the 2 most common illnesses Outcomes were measured after 8 weeks of therapy, in this group.14,15 The otogenic group fared equally well, because previous investigations11,12 found this to be the (REPRINTED) ARCH OTOLARYNGOL HEAD NECK SURG/ VOL 131, AUG 2005 2005 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.
minimum period for an adequate therapeutic trial. We yngology Head and Neck Surgery. 16th ed. Hamilton, Ontario: BC Decker; 2003: routinely treat patients with SSRIs for 1 year before at- 4. Ruckenstein MJ, Shepard NT. Balance function testing: a rational approach. Oto- tempting a slow taper of the medication. However, we laryngol Clin North Am. 2000;33:507-518.
do not yet have systematic data on long-term outcomes.
5. Staab JP, Ruckenstein MJ. A psychiatric approach to dizziness. Psychiatr Ann.
This study found SSRIs to be effective for patients with CSD and anxiety, although not all patients re- 6. Furman JM, Balaban CD, Jacob RG. Interface between vestibular dysfunction and sponded equally well to treatment. The magnitude of anxiety: more than just psychogenicity. Otol Neurotol. 2001;22:426-427.
the therapeutic response depended on the longitudinal 7. Staab JP. Diagnosis and treatment of psychologic symptoms and psychiatric dis- orders in patients with dizziness and imbalance. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2000; pattern of illness, which was determined from the clini- cal history obtained at the outset of the study. Patients 8. Yardley L. Overview of psychologic effects of chronic dizziness and balance with otogenic and psychogenic patterns had higher disorders. Otolaryngol Clin North Am. 2000;33:603-616.
rates of complete remission of both dizziness and anxi- 9. Staab JP, Ruckenstein MJ. Which comes first? psychogenic dizziness versus ety during SSRI treatment than did those with an inter- otogenic anxiety. Laryngoscope. 2003;113:1714-1718.
active pattern. In contrast, patients in the interactive 10. Godemann F, Koffroth C, Neu P, Heuser I. Why does vertigo become chronic after neuropathia vestibularis? Psychosom Med. 2004;66:783-787.
group were more likely to experience a partial reduc- 11. Staab JP, Ruckenstein MJ, Amsterdam JD. A prospective trial of sertraline for tion in symptoms rather than a complete remission.
chronic subjective dizziness. Laryngoscope. 2004;114:1637-1641.
These results suggest that neurotologists and others 12. Staab JP, Ruckenstein MJ, Solomon D, Shepard NT. Serotonin reuptake inhibi- who regularly treat patients with chronic dizziness can tors for dizziness with psychiatric symptoms. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg.
feel confident recommending SSRI treatment for pa- tients with otogenic and psychogenic patterns of illness.
13. Horii A, Mitani K, Kitahara T, Uno A, Takeda N, Kubo T. Paroxetine, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, reduces depressive symptoms and subjective handi- Additional therapies may be needed for those with an caps in patients with dizziness. Otol Neurotol. 2004;25:536-543.
interactive pattern of CSD and anxiety.
14. Zohar J, Westenberg HG. Anxiety disorders: a review of tricyclic antidepres- sants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Acta Psychiatr Scand Suppl.
Submitted for Publication: January 7, 2005; final revi-
sion received March 14, 2005; accepted March 28, 2005.
15. American Psychiatric Association; Work Group on Panic Disorder. Practice guide- Correspondence: Jeffrey P. Staab, MD, MS, Depart-
line for the treatment of patients with panic disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 1998;155(5, suppl):1-34.
ments of Psychiatry and Otorhinolaryngology–Head and 16. Ruckenstein MJ, Staab JP. The Basic Symptom Inventory-53 and its use in the Neck Surgery, Hospital of the University of Pennsylva- management of patients with psychogenic dizziness. Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg.
nia, 3400 Spruce St, Founders Pavilion F11.015, Phila- delphia, PA 19104 (
17. First MB, Spitzer RL, Gibbon M, Williams JBW. Structured Clinical Interview for Axis I DSM-IV Disorders–Patient Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiat-ric Association; 1994.
18. Guy W. ECDEU Assessment Manual for Psychopharmacology. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health, Education, and Welfare; 1976.
1. Barber HO. Current ideas on vestibular diagnosis. Otolaryngol Clin North Am.
19. Li Volsi G, Licata F, Fretto G, Mauro MD, Santangelo F. Influence of serotonin on the glutamate-induced excitations of secondary vestibular neurons in the rat. Exp 2. Baloh RW. Differentiating between peripheral and central causes of vertigo. Oto- laryngol Head Neck Surg. 1998;119:55-59.
20. Sugihara I, Lang EJ, Llinas R. Serotonin modulation of inferior olivary oscilla- 3. Shepard NT, Solomon D, Ruckenstein M, Staab J. Evaluation of the vestibular tions and synchronicity: a multiple-electrode study in the rat cerebellum. Eur J (balance) system. In: Snow JB, Ballenger JJ, eds. Ballenger’s Otorhinolar- (REPRINTED) ARCH OTOLARYNGOL HEAD NECK SURG/ VOL 131, AUG 2005 2005 American Medical Association. All rights reserved.


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