The Ear Plays A Crucial Part In The Balancing Act
The human ear is a fascinating organ – not only does it detect sound, it also aids in balance and body position. You keep your balance thanks to a collection of sensory systems: vestibular (ears), vision (eyes) and somatic (touch). If any one of these sensory systems is damaged, you will probably experience dizziness or loss of balance. Try to stand on one leg and lift your arms and other leg straight up. If you manage to keep your balance, now try closing your eyes! It gets harder to stay up straight when you lose that sense of vision.
The visual system helps us stay orientated in our surroundings, while the somatic system monitors the movement and tension of our muscles and joints. The latter also keeps track of the position of our body with respect to the ground. Both of these systems are very important to creating our perception of the world around us.
Now the vestibular system, which is found in the inner ear, detects circular motion and movement in a straight line. This system is made up of tubes and sacs that are filled with fluid. When we move our head, so does this fluid. Our brain is able to detect the movement of this fluid because of specialized sensory cells in our ears. This process comes into play in our everyday actions including stopping, starting or turning. The information that the vestibular system provides is also important for coordinating the position of the head and the movement of the eyes.
It’s the combination of these sensory signals that allows the brain to produce a sensation of stability. When you tilt your head, the vestibular system allows the brain to interpret the movement, while the eyes provide visual information about your position. Simultaneously, the brain sends signals to the muscles to engage and ensure balance even though your head is titled.
Our sense of balance is a beautifully orchestrated phenomenon that is easy to take for granted. Injury, disease or the aging process can affect one or more of the sensory components related to balance. Falls become more common in aging populations. The decline of vision, proprioceptors on the bottoms of the feet that communicate position information, and the tiny hairs in the inner ear that relay motion information to the brain are part of this consequence. While these declines with age are unavoidable, physical therapists can recommend a number of exercises to help preserve the sense of balance.