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Your Vestibular System

What It Does and How It Works

Article by Dr. Kelsy Rayl, PT, DPT

Photography by Lynn Townsend

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Have you ever felt dizzy, sick to your stomach, had a headache, trouble keeping your balance, or just felt "weird"? If you have, then you've experienced issues related to your vestibular system, even if you haven't heard about it before. If these things have happened to you, you know that simple daily activities like getting ready in the morning, driving, working, and hanging out with friends can become really hard. But what exactly is the vestibular system? And how does it work?

How Your Vestibular System Helps You:

Your vestibular system's main job is to tell your brain where your body is in space. This information is super important for your brain. Your brain needs to know where your body is so it can control it properly. Making sure your body is doing what you want is the main job of your brain, even more important than thinking and cognitive processing.

Parts of Your Vestibular System:

The vestibular system has two main parts: the peripheral part and the central part.

The peripheral part is in your inner ear. There are canals in your inner ear that are filled with fluid. When your head moves or you're in motion, the fluid in these canals moves too and sends signals to your brain about where you are in space. Also, there's a layer with tiny crystals in the inner ear. These crystals sit on top of the layer which is sticky, so they stay in place. When you move, gravity pulls on these crystals, and this helps your brain know how fast you're moving and how gravity is acting on your body.

The central part is in your brainstem. Here, the central vestibular system takes care of all the information from your senses. This includes what your peripheral vestibular system tells you, what your eyes see, what your body feels (this is called proprioception), and more. The central vestibular system sorts through all this info and gives your brain the most accurate and precise package of information. This helps us understand the world around us without getting overwhelmed by everything.

When Your Vestibular System Gets Mixed Up:

There are several conditions and injuries that can impact how well your vestibular system functions. For example, if you hit your head or experience a strong force that stops you suddenly, both the peripheral and central parts of your vestibular system can be injured. When either part doesn't work well, your brain takes more time to get the info it needs to figure out where your body is. This means your brain has to work harder than usual to control your body.

Every brain can handle a certain amount of stress, that amount varies from person to person. Normally, when you wake up, your brain isn't very stressed. As the day goes on and things happen, your brain deals with stress, but it doesn't usually reach it's max stress level. But when your vestibular system is messed up, it adds more stress to your brain. Throughout the day, as things happen, you might get close to your max stress level or even reach it. When that happens, your brain shows you warning signs: you could feel dizzy, nauseous, have a headache, find it hard to concentrate, or experience other symptoms. These warning signs tell you that your brain has reached its limit and needs a break.

Why Knowing About This Helps:

If you have any of these symptoms, you might have a problem with your vestibular system.

  • Vertigo (feeling like things are spinning)

  • Dizziness

  • Feeling sick or nauseous

  • Trouble keeping your balance

  • Feeling weird or off

  • Headaches

  • Seeing things blurry or double

  • Being sensitive to light or noise

  • Feeling mentally foggy

  • Feeling slow

  • Having a hard time concentrating

  • Feeling tired a lot

The next step is to see a specialized physical therapist who knows about the vestibular system! At SparqPT, you’ll spend one-on-one time with our providers. We use up-to-date methods and technology that get to the bottom of your issue and make a treatment plan just for you to help you get better in fewer visits. Together, you can reduce your symptoms, improve your balance, and get back to enjoying your life!

Do you need a checkup for your vestibular system? Start here by clicking this link!

Please note that the thoughts and ideas presented in this article reflect the author's viewpoint, unless stated otherwise. This content should not be considered as individual medical guidance. The details shared are designed to assist readers in making well-informed choices regarding their own health and well-being.

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