Pulsating dizziness typically indicates that the heartbeat is somehow involved. In this blog, we will discuss a few possible causes of pulsating dizziness and what type of healthcare providers may be able to help.
Pulsating dizziness may be fairly constant and can vary with head position. Whenever someone complains of pulsating dizziness, my first thought is their C1 (atlas bone) or C2 (axis bone) are out of proper alignment.
If the C1 or C2 bones are out of alignment, the blood flow through the vertebral arteries may be compressed causing pulsating dizziness. This may be why the pulsating dizziness is fairly constant but varies with head position.
Health Care Options for Pulsating Dizziness
If pulsating dizziness comes in short bursts occasionally, then a cardiology consult may be helpful to identify any abnormal heart rhythm or cardiac cause. Medical management may be beneficial if a cardiac cause if discovered.
If upper cervical issues are the root cause of pulsating dizziness, then neck care may be the appropriate treatment. Even though I assess for upper cervical dizziness during my initial exam, I don’t treat that problem as a vestibular physical therapist.
I have read case studies where the vestibular PT attempts to also treat the patient’s neck for cervicogenic dizziness and the patient does not achieve a full recovery. I want better results than that for my patients!
Therefore, I made a decision long ago to develop a team approach instead of trying to treat pulsating dizziness from the neck by myself. For patients with pulsating dizziness that show signs of upper cervical alignment issues during my exam, I typically refer them to an orthopedic manual physical therapist. I’ve had good results referring a few hundred people to this type of provider for dizziness related to their neck.
You can use this online directory to search for an orthopedic manual physical therapist if you suspect pulsating dizziness is linked with neck tension or neck pain.
Some of my patients with pulsating dizziness prefer chiropractic care for their neck instead of orthopedic manual physical therapy. In that case, I refer them to upper cervical chiropractors trained in either NUCCA or the Blair technique.
NUCCA chiropractor typically only adjusts C1 bone, but may not address any other orthopedic issues. Whereas, upper cervical chiropractors who practice the Blair technique will typically adjust C1, C2, and the whole spine as needed.
Underlying Causes of Pulsating Dizziness from the Neck
Patients with pulsating dizziness from their neck often have neck pain, tension, or stiffness. Pulsating dizziness may occur in patients with a history of whiplash or other neck injury.
I have written other articles on these specific topics:
Certain occupations or hobbies can contribute to neck issues over time that can result in pulsating dizziness.
Pulsating dizziness can also develop over time in patients with low back pain or tailbone injury as the neck compensates for that misalignment on another spinal level. The head will always seek to align itself as “level” so the neck may develop misalignment over time to “level out” alignment issues elsewhere.
For example, this type of compensation can develop in response to scoliosis or an uncorrected leg length discrepancy.
For a more in depth discussion of potential deeper root causes of neck problems that can cause pulsating dizziness, click here.
Neck Stabilizing Exercises May Help
Once the spinal bones are properly aligned through manual therapy adjustment(s) by a skilled provider and the muscles re-balanced, exercises can stabilize your neck in place.
Restoration of proper alignment and stability in the neck will improve the blood flow through your neck to your brain and ears. This treatment approach can relieve pulsating dizziness.
Exercises for stretching or strengthening the neck muscles may be appropriate for long term relief of pulsating dizziness. Strengthening exercises can provide spinal stability to reduce the likelihood of recurring symptoms.
Neck exercises would be prescribed on a case-by-case basis after an evaluation.
Vestibular PT for Pulsating Dizziness
I’m not sure if vestibular physical therapy will offer any direct treatment that would provide relief from pulsating dizziness, especially if the neck is the root cause.
Pulsating dizziness may also occur in patients with a highly insufficient vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) due to heart beats disturbing gaze stability.
In those less common cases, the VOR training for gaze stabilization with a vestibular PT may reduce or resolve pulsating dizziness due to an unstable VOR triggering dizziness with the heart beat.
But keep in mind that if your C1 bone is not aligned properly, then doing a bunch of VOR eye exercises with your head moving quickly will not get you the results you want.
Your C1 bone needs to be aligned, all BPPV needs to be cleared, and then you can get good results from vestibular eye exercises for VOR training.
For more information on upper cervical dizziness and vestibular rehab, such as how I sequence treatments when both types of care are needed, click here.
Can BPPV cause Pulsating Dizziness?
BPPV typically does NOT cause pulsating dizziness. I usually hear that specific complaint from patients with neck problems.
However, it is possible (but uncommon) that patients with BPPV could perceive “visual pulsations” lasting for seconds to minutes. This could occur when the vertigo is triggered by certain positions or movements, due the symptom of oscillopsia caused by BPPV.
The patient may experience their visual world pulsating side to side or up and down. If that occurs, the nystagmus caused by BPPV would most likely be the reason for the short-lived visual pulsations.
Sometimes BPPV treatments or vestibular exercises can worsen neck problems. I discuss the considerations for co-occuring neck issues and BPPV treatment in this article.
I have found that many patients have both BPPV and upper cervical dizziness, so I recommend for those patients to address both problems for a full recovery from dizziness and vertigo. I treat the BPPV and refer to another specialist for the upper cervical care.
Can a Migraine Cause Pulsating Dizziness?
Migraines can cause a throbbing sensation, usually on one side of the head; however, the throbbing sensation from migraines is usually painful.
Throbbing pain on one side of the head can co-occur with dizziness and nausea during a migraine episode. Even so, I would not describe this symptom pattern as “pulsating dizziness.”
Vestibular migraines are a subtype of migraines that should be considered as a possible root cause of dizziness and vertigo in all migraine sufferers. To learn about vestibular migraines, check out tthis article.
Commit to the Treatment Plan
Keep in mind that jumping around to different health care providers without completing their treatment plan will limit your results in recovering from pulsating dizziness.
I suggest you decide which health care providers you like to work with and you trust.
You may ultimately need a team of providers to address each root cause in your case.
Then make a commitment to finish their treatment plan.
This blog is provided for informational purposes only. The content and any comments by Dr. Kim Bell, DPT are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. The details of any case mentioned in this post represent a typical patient that Dr. Bell might see and do not describe the circumstances of a specific individual.