Flicker Vertigo – What is it?

what is flicker vertigo
Alan Desmond
May 29, 2023

After more than 25 years of working with vestibular patients and hearing various unusual descriptions, I recently came across a term that caught my attention: “Flicker Vertigo.” Although it may be familiar to pilots, I had never encountered it before, despite spending my childhood Saturdays in the back seat of my father’s airplane during aerobatic stunts.

Hmmmmm. Maybe that explains my later interest in vestibular disorders?

Understanding Flicker Vertigo

Flicker vertigo is characterized as an imbalance in brain cell activity caused by exposure to the low-frequency flickering or flashing of a bright light source, such as a rotating beacon, strobe light, or sunlight seen through a spinning propeller.

Flicker vertigo is described as:

“an imbalance in brain cell activity caused by exposure to the low frequency flickering (or flashing) of a relatively bright light (such as a rotating beacon; a strobe light; or sunlight seen through a windmilling propeller).”

The symptoms of Flicker Vertigo are described as:

“nausea, dizziness, headache, panic, confusion, and – in rare cases – seizures and loss of consciousness, which could result in a pilot’s loss of control of an aircraft.”

Clarence Rash, a research physicist with the U.S. Army and the author of the article, emphasizes that flicker vertigo should not be mistaken for vertigo resulting from inner ear disorders. He defines flicker vertigo as a “confusion of the vestibular system.” While there have been anecdotal reports of crashes associated with flicker vertigo, pilots are trained to divert their gaze from the light source and rely on their instruments when they experience disorientation. A survey conducted among Navy helicopter pilots revealed that 35 percent had experienced symptoms related to this phenomenon.

This intriguing aspect of vestibular health highlights the importance of recognizing and understanding the various triggers and conditions that can affect pilots and individuals exposed to similar light flickering scenarios. It serves as a reminder of the critical role proper training and awareness play in maintaining safety and preventing accidents in aviation and related fields.


About the author

Alan Desmond, Co-Editor, Dizziness DepotAlan Desmond, AuD, is the director of the Balance Disorders Program at Wake Forest Baptist Health Center, and holds an adjunct assistant professor faculty position at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. He has written several books and book chapters on balance disorders and vestibular function. He is the co-author of the Clinical Practice Guideline for Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). In 2015, he was the recipient of the President’s Award from the American Academy of Audiology.


**this piece has been updated for clarity. It originally published on May 29, 2012