Purpose of review
To provide an update on diagnostic algorithms for differential diagnosis of acute vertigo and dizziness and swift identification of potentially harmful causes.
About 25% of patients with acute vertigo and dizziness have a potentially life-threatening diagnosis, including stroke in 4–15%. Diagnostic work-up relies on the combination of symptom features (triggers, duration, history of vertigo/dizziness, accompanying symptoms) and a comprehensive vestibular, ocular motor, and balance exam. The latter includes head impulse, head-shaking nystagmus, positional nystagmus, gaze-holding, smooth pursuit, skew deviation, and Romberg's test. Recent standardized diagnostic algorithms (e.g., HINTS, TriAGe+) suggest the combination of several elements to achieve a good diagnostic accuracy in differentiation of central and peripheral vestibular causes. Neuroimaging with MRI must be applied and interpreted with caution, as small strokes are frequently overlooked, especially in the acute setting (false-negative rate of up to 50%).
Diagnostic differentiation of acute vertigo and dizziness remains a complex task, which can be tackled by a structured clinical assessment focusing on symptom characteristics and constellations of ocular motor and vestibular findings. Specific challenges arise in cases of transient or atypical vestibular syndromes.