3 Sensory Systems That Help Maintain Balance

Where does your body’s ability to stay upright and maintain balance come from? And what is happening to your body when you feel dizzy, weak, or unsteady?

Balance, also known as postural control, is the condition in which all the forces acting on the body are equalized so that you can maintain an upright position. For humans, postural control is maintained through our sensory systems.

All day long, our sensory systems are hard at work, giving us feedback on our actions in relation to the environment. And this constant stream of sensory feedback is what helps us keep our balance.

Did you know that balance physical therapy can help you to correct issues with your posture and movement? It’s one of the many services we offer at Cawley Physical Therapy.

Get in touch with us today to make an appointment and start on your journey back to health!

Maintaining Balance through Sensory Systems

Our nervous system integrates information from three primary sensory systems: 

  • Vision
  • Somatosensory
  • Vestibular

When these three systems work together, we’re able to maintain adequate balance. But if something disrupts any or all of these systems, it can cause dizziness or vertigo.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these sensory systems and their role in maintaining balance.


Vision is one sensory system that maintains balance. The eyes’ normal vision and visual functioning give us depth perception and help us maintain a sense of where we are in our surroundings.

A little bit of anatomy will help explain how we can perceive and monitor what’s going on around us. Light enters the eye through the cornea, then travels through the pupil to the iris. From there, the optic disc perceives light as information and transfers this data to the optic nerve.

Over time, changes in vision due to aging or conditions like cataracts can disrupt this transfer of light and visual information. As a result, the visual sensory system ends up with a distorted sense of orientation, which negatively affects balance.


Take a moment and think about where you’re standing right now. Pay attention to where your feet meet the floor or where your legs touch your chair. Your sense of where you’re sitting or standing comes from your body’s somatosensory system.

Cutaneous and pressure receptors provide information about the orientation and movement of your body in relation to a surface (like the floor or your chair). When you stand on a firm surface, like concrete or asphalt, it’s easy to maintain a sense of balance. But when the surface is altered to something less stable or less uniform, like foam or sand, it becomes more challenging to maintain your postural control.

Proprioception is another part of the somatosensory system that allows us to know where our joints are in space. You use proprioception when you sense the difference in your knee when it’s fully extended compared to bent or flexed to about a 90-degree angle.

Individuals who experience diminished sensations in their feet may have poor balance. For example, if you have diabetes or types of neuropathy that commonly affect the feet, you might also have poor balance.


The third sensory system that affects balance is in the ear. Here’s another quick anatomy lesson to explain how the vestibular system relates to balance.

Within your ear, the vestibular apparatus is made up of semicircular canals with fluid-filled tubes. The detection of the movement of the fluid in these tubes is what helps to maintain our balance. Sensing the movement of the fluid in these tubes helps to coordinate our head movements with our eyes. For example, you can hold a forward gaze with your eyes even when moving your head up and down to say “yes” to someone.

Various conditions can affect the tubes in our ears. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) or an ear infection, which affects the vestibular apparatus, may lead to a distorted sense of balance.

Get Physical Therapy for Your Balance Dysfunction

Now that you know more about the three sensory systems and how they relate to balance, let’s look at how to treat balance dysfunction. The treatment for balance dysfunction, like dizziness and vertigo, is based on a physical therapy program that targets the three sensory systems described above.

Physical therapists can assess the three systems to determine the underlying nature of the body’s instability. Based on the initial assessment, a physical therapist develops an exercise program that addresses any deficits to improve balance and reduce the risk of falling.

A Physical Therapy Program for Balance Dysfunction:

  • Can be modified based on the system affected.
  • Includes dynamic balance activities.
  • Includes weight-shifting activities.
  • Includes generalized strengthening exercises.
  • Includes visual exercises.

The team at Cawley Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation can work with you to maintain adequate balance so that you feel strong and stable.

To learn more or to make an appointment, give us a call at 570-208-2787.