When Vestibular Processing (Balance Sense) Is Out of Tune

Located in the inner ear, the vestibular sense is our sense of balance (gyroscope), orientation (compass), and movement. It is composed of three semicircular canals filled with fluid that bends hair-like nerve cells, and the utricle, containing hair cells with tiny calcium carbonate crystals (otoconia) on their ends. When your head changes position the crystal topped hairs bend and inform the brain of body movement. In this way, you know where your head and body are in space in relation to gravity and movement, and how your head and body are moving through space so you can ride a bike without falling off, walk a straight line, and even move your head from side to side.
Every action, every moment happens against gravity. If the vestibular sense is out of tune, life becomes intensely miserable.

  • As a child, swings, roller coasters, merry-go-rounds and other activities that most children find fun gave you an awful surge and terrified you.
  • Ordinary things make you light-headed or dizzy
    • Walking on an uneven terrain like grass
    • Bending over to pick something up
    • Tilting your head up to kiss your husband
  • Abnormal eye positions occur when you stand or lie in certain positions and you may feel dizzy and nauseas when you close your eyes. Falling asleep can feel frightening and you suffer insomnia. When you do fall asleep, closing your eyes may evoke terrors and nightmares related to falling, floating, and spinning.
  • You may suffer panic attacks that escalate to space-related phobias like claustrophobia, fear of heights or flying (see chapter two).

The vestibular sense orchestrates all other senses. When it is out of whack, it will affect all sensory processing. Take vision. It is by seeing that you know where you are in space. If you close your eyes and try standing on one leg, you might wobble. Through movement, the vestibular system works together with the visual system to develop a visual map of the environment, so you can place yourself in space. Picture how the vestibular system guides the movement of your eyes, enabling you to track moving cars.

If you have vestibular dysfunction,

  • You may have a problem coordinating vision and may not use both eyes together as a team (binocularity). Poor binocular vision causes difficulty in perceiving what you see and comes from the brain scrambling sensory messages. For instance, you may have difficulty connecting sights with sounds and not know where to look when someone calls your name.
  • You may have a problem connecting sights with touch sensations and may not know by looking that sandpaper is rough.
  • You may have a problem connecting sights with movement sensation and swerve around the chair to avoid bumping into it.
  • You may frequently swat past the tennis ball because of poor eye-hand coordination, visual perception, and spatial awareness.
  • In school, you may have had trouble recognizing letters & learning to read -- dyslexia.

When Sarah turns off her car, she holds her keys in her hand until she gets to the elevator. If she puts them in her pocket, she will keep taking them out to check that she has them. She’s not obsessive/compulsive. She must feel and see her keys for her brain to accurately register “keys.”

Information taken from Uptight & Off Center.