Timothy C. Hain, MD Page last modified: December 24, 2014
The vibration test is a recent development in clinical vestibular assessment. It has been made possible by the wide availability of video Frenzel goggles, which are devices which allow one to observe a subjects eyes in complete darkness. Vibration over the head or neck may elicit a vigorous nystagmus, and furthermore, the nystagmus is frequently direction specific and allows you to identify the "bad ear".
|Device used for vibration test (cost -- about $25). This is a Sunbeam/Oster shower massager.|
A source of vibration, such as a hand-held shower massager is firmly applied to the mastoid, anterior or posterior neck of a subject. Others have used a "TheraSpa Turbo Brookstone" (White et al, 2007) You can use other vibrators instead -- it is not very critical except we advise against battery powered devices.
|Method of vibration test. A shower massager is applied firmly to the lower edge of the sternocleidomastoid. The lower frequency setting is used (60 hz).|
Generally we apply vibration to the lower edge of the sternocleidomastoid as we want to avoid the carotid artery area, but the exact location is not at all critical as long as the sternocleidomastoid is located and the pressure is firm. The eyes are observed with a device such as a video-Frenzel goggle system. No light can be allowed. The subject is sitting upright, without instruction other than to look straight ahead.
|Vibration induced nystagmus. This patient has a 60% left weakness. There is a 3 deg/sec right-beating spontaneous nystagmus, which increases to about 10 deg/sec when vibration is applied to either sternocleidomastoid with a device that produces a 60 cycle pulse (a shower massager).|
A positive response is a horizontal nystagmus that beats in the same direction, for vibration on both sides of the neck. Nystagmus that beats in different directions according to the side of vibration is common and a variant of normal. Nearly always this is "ipsi" -- the nystagmus beats towards the vibrated side. Occasionally it is "contra".
|Upbeating nystagmus induced by vibration on either side. This is of unknown significance, but it is quite rare.|
Nystagmus that is vectored other than horizontally, is of unknown significance. In some cases it may be due to release from fixation suppression. This is generally upbeating, but downbeating and even torsional nystagmus is rarely encountered.
An example of the typical positive vibration test is shown here (movie, 7 meg). This individual has a complete unilateral vestibular loss secondary to removal of an acoustic neuroma on the right side 30 years prior. There is a strong nystagmus beating to the left, for vibration on either side. The subject cannot see because of the goggles which occlude vision. The vibration source is a conventional shower massager as shown above.
The vibration test nystagmus (as far as we know) persists forever. Here is an example of a patient post-acoustic removal 1 year prior to testing (image courtesy of Dr. Dario Yacovino). Vibration nystagmus is stronger than head-shaking nystagmus. HSN usually becomes smaller in the territory between 50-100% loss, while vibration nystagmus scales more linearly with the extent of loss. (unpublished observations of the author). Of course, there is no caloric nystagmus (bottom right):
There is a suprisingly large literature documenting the utility of neck vibration in diagnosis of dizziness. There is also a large basic science literature documenting the deleterious effects of vibration on posture.
In essence, vibration of the neck is a moderately reliable method of localizing the side of a unilateral vestibular lesion. In complete darkness, vibration induces a nystagmus that resembles that seen acutely, prior to compensation. Vibration induced nystagmus persists over decades, unlike spontaneous nystagmus.
Vibration of the posterior neck may also be useful in diagnosis of SCD. In this case, it reportedly induces a downbeating nystagmus (White et al, 2007). This observation is so far not well established, and we haven't found this to be true in our own patients either. In other words, don't depend on it. The valsalva test is far more effective in diagnosing SCD at the bedside.
We have found that vibration induced nystagmus is an excellent method of determining whether or not transtympanic gentamicin treatment for Meniere's disease will stop vertigo attacks. (unpublished data of the author). Presumably this is due to unilateral vestibular damage.
Vibration induced nystagmus is an immensely more useful test than the "HIT" or head impulse test, as well as being safer (lacking the strong head thrusts), but oddly enough, much less research has been done on vibration. Some basic questions that we think would be of interest: