Flicker Vertigo: An Old Dog Learns a New Trick


I thought I had heard it all. I have been seeing vestibular patients for over 25 years, and I have heard some very unusual descriptions. I think the oddest was the lady who told me she felt like she was walking on air ever since she got out of prison. Well, this week, I stumbled across a reference to “Flicker Vertigo.” {{1}}[[1]] Rash C (2004) Awareness of Causes and Symptoms of Flicker Vertigo Can Limit Ill Effects. Human Factors & Aviation medicine, Vol 51, #2 March-April[[1]] My suspicion is that this is a familiar term to pilots, but I had not heard it before despite the fact that I grew up spending Saturdays in the back seat of my Dad’s airplane while he did aerobatic stunts. Hmmmmm. Maybe that explains my later interest in vestibular disorders.

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.”

The author of the article, Clarence Rash, is a research physicist with the U.S.Army. He cautions that flicker vertigo should not be confused with vertigo from inner ear disorders, and defines flicker vertigo as “a confusion of the vestibular system.” While there are some anecdotal reports of crashes related to flicker vertigo, pilots are trained to look away from the light source and rely on their instruments when they start to feel disoriented. A survey of Navy helicopter pilots found that 35 percent had experienced some symptoms of this phenomena.



About Alan Desmond

Dr. Alan Desmond 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. In 2015, he received the Presidents Award from the American Academy of Audiology.