Head and Balance: The Vestibular System?

Do you recall as kids playing, we used to close our eyes, shake our heads back and forth, and when we opened them the cool dizzy feeling we experienced? As kids, this was a fun game. Yet, as adults that are no longer kids at play, suddenly feeling dizzy in our day-to-day lives isn’t any fun any longer.  The sudden dizziness now causes great concern. We then wonder why, and what, is going on within our brains. 

            These questions then shift us to look at what we call the Vestibular System, and specifically, the function of the inner ear and how it controls our balance.

(Figure 1- Here is a quick look into the ear and what the inner ear looks like)

If you recall in our blog posts two weeks ago; we talked about the vestibular system (balance), and how it encompasses many elements of the brain.  For example, if we look at a target, and then start turning our heads; our vestibular system ensures that our eyes stay on the target, keep us from falling, and we don’t have balance issues. 

The vestibular system is responsible for tracking head turns, speed, and direction all in a matter of milliseconds. When this happens, the inner ear (ossicles/ small bones) sense this change in head position and fires to the eyes and neck/back muscles. Even in this simple exercise, we can see that the eyes, head, and whole-body need to be updated with information continuously for things to work well. 


When the vestibular system isn’t working well the inner ear doesn’t fire correctly, and neck mechanisms maps aren’t updated. We then try to compensate by using more of our neck muscles – instead of just our eyes moving – causing more tension and pain in the neck.  OUCH!

Dizziness, light-headedness, and vertigo are just some of the main symptoms when the inner ear isn’t working. When we say balance issues, this doesn’t mean that we are falling all the time. Situations that could be described as balance-related can include becoming dizzy or woozy when going up/downstairs, feeling off-balance in the grocery aisle, or get dizzy even when we aren’t moving.  This last example can be seen when we aren’t moving our bodies, but we are still moving- such as on an elevator or escalator. 


Let’s briefly look and explain what the inner ear is and how it helps with balance.  When we are walking or doing any dynamic activity, it will make sense that we are using our eyes to help us see and have balance. We also need our vestibular system to be working as well. As we are running, we are continually having a small amount of head bobbing (head going up and down). In addition, we have found that as we run the eyes need to go the opposite to direction to maintain our balance. 

Quick example:

Look forward at a target that is about eye level.

While you are looking at the target slowly move your head to the side as if you are saying “no”. (Do this a couple of times)

Now, do this again, but increasing the head shakes each time you turn your head. Try to keep your eyes firmly on the target. 

To make it even difficult: start walking towards a target while doing the head shakes,  and keeping your eyes firmly on the target. Oh Man!!

Do any of these examples make you either come off of the target or get dizzy? If you did it while walking, did you walk in a straight line? Did you start to wobble? If you said “yes” to any of these questions, your system(s) aren’t either updating correctly or not firing correctly. There’re millions of people in the world that have these sensations every day when they move their eyes or head and can have these sensations even when standing still. When this happens, our vestibular system may be firing too much, or inappropriately. In addition, it may be sending the wrong signal to the brain for interpretation. We need to remember,  when the eyes and head (neck muscles) get activated, they not only send messages to the brain, but they also must fire down to the rest of the body to give us a better interpretation of where we are in space.  

            We can think of walking as a series of coordinated falls; this sounds weird, right?  What do I mean by this? As we are walking, not only does the vestibular system continually update with muscle activation, eye movements, and where the head is at, but it is also happening dynamically and quickly. As we are walking, we are trusting that these systems are working correctly by essentially guessing we are taking the right steps and balancing the right mechanisms. We will see in the next post, but this is why it is so essential to move and exercise. 

With proper movement, not only are we updating the brain and improving our brain maps (again a lot more about this next post), we are creating positive cycles within the brain and body. 

This goofy picture(above) is the topic of our next post. Believe it or not, this is what our brains think our bodies look like.

Until then, Live A Balanced Life!

NEXT POST: Our Bodies and Balance: Spidey Sense? (BELOW)


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