Vestibular System: How This Complex Sensory System Affects Your Balance and Motion

The vestibular system is a sensory system located in the inner ear that plays a pivotal role in maintaining balance, coordinating movements, and orienting ourselves in space. It’s responsible for processing information about the movement and position of our head and body, including the gravitational forces acting on us.

The complex vestibular system also interacts closely with other sensory systems, such as vision and body position awareness or proprioception, to provide a clear picture of our environment. Understanding the mechanisms of the vestibular system can shed light on medical issues, like dizziness, vertigo, movement disorders, and neurological conditions.

The Vestibular System and Its Effect on Balance

Balance is the body’s ability to maintain equilibrium, stability on your feet, and an upright posture. To sustain balance, three sensory and motor processes—the visual, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems—must all work together simultaneously. Vision sensory input provides details about your orientation in relation to the world around you. Touch or tactile inputs offer information on how your body interacts with its surroundings.

The proprioceptive system can also signal directionality, the type of surface you’re on, temperature sensation, and pain. Finally, the vestibular system in the inner ear detects your body’s orientation in relation to gravity and aids in maintaining balance. It also gives sensory feedback on movement and equilibrium.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Vestibular Disorder

The cerebellum region of our brain, responsible for compensating for shifts in body position, combines this information with visual and touch inputs to keep our bodies balanced. When the cerebellum detects a loss of balance, it sends messages to the appropriate muscle groups to restore balance. As you can see, the proper functioning of this intricate sensorimotor pathway is critical in our daily lives.

Our sense of balance suffers when one or more of these components are compromised due to injury, aging, drugs, or disease. This is known as a vestibular balance disorder, and it causes the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Loss of balance
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Sound sensitivity or hearing loss
  • Issues with focus and concentration
  • Vision problems such as difficulty focusing on objects or blurriness

Vertigo, a spinning sensation, is also a balance disorder symptom. This can develop at any age but is more common as you grow older.

Vestibular Diagnosis and Rehabilitation

After a hearing and vision examination, including brain imaging and clinical balance test, an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist will use a posturography to assess your posture and movement. An electronystagmography or ENG test can also be used to help detect disorders of the inner ear that interprets spatial orientation and balance. Treatment depends on the type of vestibular disorder and may include:

  • Using antifungal medication or antibiotics to treat underlying issues
  • Lifestyle changes like quitting smoking/nicotine
  • An Epley maneuver therapy aimed at restoring proper balance function and alleviating symptoms including dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
  • Surgery is only used when all other treatments have failed to alleviate symptoms. The goal is to stabilize and repair inner ear function.
  • Vestibular rehabilitation, or balance retraining therapy, teaches patients how to deal with dizziness in their daily lives

How Physical Therapy Can Help With Vestibular Balance Disorder

The symptoms of vestibular balance disorder can have a negative impact on your quality of life. Vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT) aims to reduce or eliminate balance issues. This can lead to better balance, less dizziness, and a lower risk of falling.

Your ENT or otolaryngologist will tailor physical therapy to your specific needs and demonstrate particular movements you can utilize at home. They include head and eye movement control, balance training, cardiovascular exercises, and muscle strengthening. If you or someone you know is experiencing dizziness, please get in touch with Cawley Physical Therapy at (570)-208-2787.