Balance not only supports us moving through space without falling but also allows us to be aware of our physical position. Our ability to maintain balance relies on a complex system that includes various senses including vestibular, visual, and somatosensory systems. Issues with any of these systems can impact balance, producing symptoms like dizziness. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 40% of people in the U.S. will experience dizziness and/or balance-related challenges during their lifetime.
How does the vestibular system work?
The vestibular system which is housed in the inner ear is the sensory system that manages balance. This maze-like structure consists of bone and tissue that form loops referred to as semicircular canals:
- First canal: senses up and down motions
- Second canal: senses side to side movements
- Third canal: senses tilting movements
These canals are filled with fluid and tiny sensory cells that send messages about the movement to the brain - messages are sent to the brain via the acoustic nerve. This includes telling the brain when the head moves as well as the position of the body. The visual system (eyes) works with the vestibular system to maintain clear vision when the head and body movements. This prevents objects or the environment from becoming blurry.
The sensory receptors in the muscles and joints provide information to the brain, helping us maintain balance while standing or walking. The brain is constantly receiving this information - from the inner ear, eyes, and muscles - which it analyzes and processes to control our balance. Various causes can contribute to impaired balance but the most common are related to the inner ear.