The role of the vestibular system in movement

 

The vestibular system is the body’s primary system of balance. It is responsible for helping us clearly sense when moving, making unconscious postural adjustments to keep us upright, and sensing orientation to gravity, speed, and direction of movement.

 

It is comprised of several structures located in the inner ear, including the utricle, saccule, and three semicircular canals. The utricle and saccule sense how we are oriented to gravity and linear movement. For example, these structures help us know when we are lying down or standing up. They can also help us sense if we are in a moving car. The semicircular canals are tiny fluid filled tubes designed to detect and respond to rotational movement. When the head turns, the fluid within the semicircular canals lag behind, stimulating sensory receptors and sending information to the brain about the movement taking place.

All of this information is used to keep us upright during movement. For example, an ice skater will use the input from their vestibular system to sense how they are rotating during a jump.

Photo: Mayo Education and Research

The vestibular system and balance

 

The body relies on sensory input from eyes, muscles, joints, and vestibular system, to maintain balance. This information is communicated to the brain stem where the information is stored and communicated back to the body on how to move.

If the information received from the vestibular organs and one of the other structures conflicts, then we might feel dizzy or disoriented. An example of this is when someone feels motion sickness while reading in a moving car. While their vestibular system senses that the car is moving, their eyes sense that the words on the page are static and the information from their muscles and joints sense that they are sitting still.

Issues with the vestibular system can contribute to balance challenges for the same reason. If the brain can’t coordinate the body’s orientation to gravity or speed of movement with the information received from the eyes, muscles, and joints, then it can be difficult to maintain balance and synchronize movements, such as walking or climbing the stairs.

Assessing and Correcting Balance

 

The way in which a person is able to move their head without restrictions can provide insight into how efficient the vestibular system is working. Each point at which the head moves relates to a specific direction in the inner ear by allowing the fluid in the vestibular system to move in an opposing direction. When the fluid is not moving efficiently in the inner ear, this can lead to imbalances in the body.

 

When a client comes to me wanting to correct their balance, I assess the situation by addressing anything that may interfere with the vestibular system's ability to work efficiently. Since each direction in the inner ear is related to a head movement, one of the most effective assessments relies on observing how freely the client can move their head in multiple directions and at various speeds: turning the head right to left and left to right; nodding up and down; and tilting side to side.

 

If the client demonstrates any restrictions in their head movement, this will help identify areas that we can focus on correcting. For example, if a person has pain or stiffness in their shoulders and neck, this can inhibit the ability to move their head. Or possibly there is weakness in the neck creating a limited range of motion. Once the interference is identified and corrected, the vestibular system can then work more efficiently to balance the body. 

 

Understanding the body's kinetic chain and the ability to observe gaps within the chain are a vital piece in helping to correct a client's balance.

Trent McEntire, Director and Founder

As someone who became a professional dancer after rehabilitating his own severe movement restrictions established at birth due to Cerebral Palsy, Trent understands how the quality of life is affected by how well you can (or can't) move your body.  For 20 years, he has been sharing his discoveries and method with those seeking to overcome their own movement limitations.  His work has led to an international school and equipment designed to further the development of Pilates Therapy and Neuro-Movement.  Trent has presented his work at international conferences and host sites in Italy, Japan, Spain, Mexico, UK, Brazil, Canada, and throughout the US.