The Balanced View of the Vestibular System
We all know that the neck bone is connected to the backbone and the knee bone is connected to the leg bone. All the other bones in our bodies are interconnected with each other as well to form flawless pathways of bones large and small known as a skeleton. Without it, we would collapse into a heap of, yes, scattered bones.
The skeleton example goes to show that nothing in the human (or animal) body is haphazard; instead, we are a collection of finely tuned systems programmed to work harmoniously together.
What does this cohesiveness of body systems have to do with your ears or sense of balance? A lot!
Vestibular system – from head to toe
Did you know that the first sensory system to fully develop by the sixth month after conception is the vestibular system, a series of fluid-filled canals in the inner ear that serve a multitude of very important functions? It is just as well, because without this system firmly in place, we would be unable to function.
|The vestibular system allows humans to maintain balance and walk upright|
Just as all the bones of the skeleton have to be connected to each other in order for all the body movements to be coordinated, the vestibular system too is an important part of the overall equation.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders defines the vestibular system as being “responsible for maintaining balance, posture, and the body's orientation in space. This system also regulates locomotion and other movements, and keeps objects in visual focus as the body moves.”
But its job description doesn’t stop there. This system also controls muscles and joints, sensation in fingertips, palms of the hand and soles of the feet, and even adjusts heart rate and blood pressure.
So as you can see, in many ways this all-important system influences nearly everything we do.
All systems a go
Here’s another example of the interconnectivity of body functions. You probably never thought about the link between your eyes, ears and brain, except perhaps that all five sit in (or on) your head.
Think about it this way: in all probability, you experienced a bout of dizziness at least once in your life, but you may not have analyzed how this phenomenon occurred. You might know it has something to do with your ears, but that’s only a part of the answer.
In fact, our balance is maintained thanks to the interaction between the visual and vestibular systems. How? The visual system makes us aware of the position of our bodies in relation to our environment, and the vestibular system detects various motions such as walking, stopping, turning, or head movements.
And that’s where the brain kicks in – figuratively speaking, of course. When we move our heads, the fluid within the vestibular system is set in motion, generating an electrical impulse that is carried to the brain for interpretation.
When the brain recognizes the impulse as a head movement, it signals our eyes to move in a way that will maintain clear vision during the motion. The brain also signals our muscles to ensure good balance, regardless of whether we are sitting, standing, lying down or moving.
A dizzying experience
Ideally, the vestibular systems in both inner ears must work equally well sending uninterrupted signals to the brain; otherwise our sense of balance will be disrupted.
When that happens, you will experience dizziness, lightheadedness, or vertigo. You may feel unsteady on your feet, woozy, or have a sensation of spinning or floating (even when you are sober!) At the root of those decidedly unpleasant symptoms may be Meniere’s disorder, resulting from an abnormality in the way fluid of the inner ear is regulated.
See, we told you that well-being is a collaborative effort. It really drives home the point of “united we stand, divided we fall.”
A stint in rehab
Say your vestibular system is out of whack, affecting your balance and coordination.
Fortunately, there’s something you can do to remedy the situation. Sometimes surgery may be required to correct an inner ear/vestibular problem; most of the time, however, a stint in rehab will be just what your doctor orders.
Relax: we’re talking about Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy (VRT), which retrains the brain to process signals from the vestibular system in coordination with information received from the visual one. This approach desensitizes the balance system to movements that provoke dizziness and other unpleasant symptoms.
If you are experiencing vestibular issues your physician will more than likely refer you to an Otolaryngologist. If he or she feels further testing should be performed you may be referred to an audiologist for vestibular testing. Based on the findings of the vestibular testing your Otolaryngologist may recommend VRT.
A qualified therapist will review the vestibular tests and will assess your posture, balance, movement, and compensatory strategies. Based on the findings, he or she will then devise a personalized treatment plan of head –eye-body movement exercises intended to strengthen your muscles and get the brain used to interpreting the new pattern of movements.
The good news is that if you do your exercises regularly and diligently, the dizziness will decrease or, in the best-case scenario, disappear completely.
And you’ll be left to marvel at how the neck bone is connected to the backbone, and how the vestibular system in your inner ear works in unison with your brain and eyes to ensure that you can walk a straight line without falling.