Vestibular System Basics

  • By Dizzy & Vertigo Institute
  • August 31, 2021

For most of us, keeping our body’s balance just happens, something we never need to think about unless something goes wrong. However, the truth is that it takes a complex set of sensorimotor control systems working in harmony to keep us centered and on our feet. One of these control systems is the Vestibular System.

Parts of the Vestibular System

The vestibular system (pictured below) collects sensory information about motion, equilibrium, and spatial orientation. It’s our body’s GPS, helping position ourselves in space.

The vestibular system operates based on information collected in the vestibular apparatus. It helps determine whether you’re moving forward or backwards, up or down, whether you are stable on your feet and where you are relative to other objects in your environment.

Furthermore, the vestibular apparatus can be broken down into the utricle, saccule, and three semicircular canals. 

The utricle and saccule (together known as the vestibule) track gravity and movement. The utricle detects linear and horizontal motion, such as when a car moves forward and backward. While the saccule tracks vertical motion such as an elevator ride.

It can do this trick even without any form of visual reference. If you’ve ever wondered how you could tell when an elevator car you’re riding in is moving and whether it’s moving up or down, even though you don’t see the motion happen directly, thank your vestibular system.

The semicircular canals, meanwhile, consist of 3 canals in each inner ear which are oriented at roughly 90 degrees to each other. (Visualize the corner of the room where two adjoining walls and floor come together.) These canals detect rotational movements of the body. 

The semicircular canals are filled with a fluid called endolymph. When your head rotates, the endolymphatic fluid lags behind because of inertia. The fluid which lags behind puts pressure on the canal’s sensory receptor, which is then able to determine that your head has turned.

These canals can track rotational movements in other parts of the body as well, such as twisting your elbow and forearm in and out. No matter what position your arm is in, semicircular canals keep track of what rotation happened at the end of your elbow.

Problems in the Vestibular System

Despite the complexity of the vestibular system, it usually works unnoticeably and effectively that you never need to take notice of it. However, there are several ways in which it can develop problems that call for professional intervention.

When something does go wrong with the vestibular system or other parts of the sensorimotor control system, you can become dizzy. You may develop vertigo, a sensation which feels as though the room is spinning around, feel lightheaded or faint, lose your sense of balance or develop a feeling of floating, wooziness, or heavy-headedness.

Poor eyesight, muscle and joint control can play a role in why you might be dizzy.

Problems in the vestibular system can lead to a variety of Vestibular Disorders. For instance, BPPV, in which tiny bits of calcium in part of your inner ear get loose and move to a place they don’t belong; Vestibular Neuritis, an infection of vestibular nerve; Labyrinthitis, an inflammation of the nerves in your ears; and Meniere’s Disease, which occurs when there’s too much fluid in the inner ear.

When dizziness or vertigo strikes, they can be devastating.

Given how complex our balance system is, trying to fight dizziness on your own is too much to handle. That’s why it’s best to seek treatment from a Vestibular Lab, such as the Dizzy & Vertigo Institute.

Vestibular Labs specialize in finding abnormalities or malfunctions in the vestibular system and then designing personalized treatment plans to cure the source of dizziness. General Physicians and ENTs often lack the specialized equipment for these conditions which Vestibular Audiologists have access to.

If you or someone you know struggles with dizziness or vertigo, we urge you to reach out to our care team at (310) 954-2207 or fill out our contact form here.

We’re standing by ready to help you on your path to a dizzy-free life.

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