Disconnect between charted vestibular diagnoses and emergency department management decisions: a cross-sectional analysis from a nationally representative sample

Acad Emerg Med. 2009 Oct;16(10):970-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1553-2712.2009.00523.x.


Objectives: The most common vestibular disorders seen in the emergency department (ED) are benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) and acute peripheral vestibulopathy (APV; i.e., vestibular neuritis or labyrinthitis). BPPV and APV are two very distinct disorders that have different clinical presentations that require different diagnostic and treatment strategies. BPPV can be diagnosed without imaging and is treated with canalith-repositioning maneuvers. APV sometimes requires neuroimaging by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to exclude posterior fossa stroke mimics and should be treated with vestibular sedatives and corticosteroids. We sought to determine if emergency physicians (EPs) apply best practices to diagnose and treat these common vestibular disorders.

Methods: This was a cross-sectional study of ED visits from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS). A weighted sample of U.S. ED visits (1993-2005) was used. Patients at least 16 years of age who were given a final ED diagnosis of BPPV (International Classification of Diseases, 9th Revision [ICD-9], 386.11) or APV (ICD-9 386.12 or 386.3x) comprised the study population. The frequency of imaging and drug therapy in those diagnosed as BPPV or APV versus controls was the main outcome measure.

Results: A total of 9,472 dizzy patient visits were sampled over 13 years (weighted estimate 33.6 million U.S. ED visits over that period). A weighted estimate of 2.5 million patients (7.4%) were given a vestibular diagnosis, mostly BPPV (weighted 0.2 million) or APV (weighted 1.9 million). Patients given BPPV (19%) and APV (19%) diagnoses were more likely to undergo imaging (all by computed tomography [CT]) than controls (7%; p < 0.001). Patients given BPPV (58%) and APV (70%) diagnoses were more likely to receive meclizine than controls (0.1%; p < 0.001). Corticosteroid administration was rarely documented (2% BPPV, 1% APV).

Conclusions: Patients given a vestibular diagnosis in the ED may not be managed optimally. Patients given BPPV and APV diagnoses undergo imaging (predominantly CT) with equal frequency, suggesting overuse of CT (BPPV) and probably underuse of MRI (APV). Most patients diagnosed with BPPV are given meclizine, which is not indicated. Specific therapy for APV (corticosteroids) is probably underutilized. Educational initiatives and clinical guidelines merit consideration.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Decision Making
  • Diagnostic Imaging*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Care Surveys
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • United States
  • Vertigo / diagnosis*
  • Vertigo / drug therapy*
  • Vestibular Neuronitis / diagnosis*
  • Vestibular Neuronitis / drug therapy*