The Other Senses: Vestibular System

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on the vestibular system, which is a fundamental means of sensing the environment.

What is the vestibular system?

The vestibular system, which starts in vestibular organs in the middle and inner ear, is the first sensation a fetus experiences prior to birth. As we move our heads, the fluid in these organs shifts, giving us feedback about where we are in space. Depending on the efficiency of our vestibular system, we may experience a feeling of balance and gravitational security or a sense of being off balance and in danger of falling. The vestibular system makes our body aware of when we need to make adjustments to maintain balance.

Signs of a Healthy Vestibular System

When our vestibular sense is fully functional, we are secure and organized enough in our bodies to be able to attend and respond to all of the other senses we encounter daily.  A child with a well-developed vestibular sense feels confident and safe during movement activities, even if his feet are off the ground.  She is able to start and stop movement activities calmly and with control.  He is comfortable with climbing, swinging, somersaulting, and jumping –- knowing that his body will adapt and that he will be able to maintain his balance and keep himself from falling or getting hurt.

Signs of Vestibular Disorder

Surprisingly, when a child’s vestibular system is not functioning properly, she may be either under- responsive or overly sensitive to movement. For this reason, many of the symptoms of a vestibular problem may seem contradictory. These symptoms include:

  • Unwillingness to participate in activities that require feet leaving the ground
  • Frequent motion sickness or dizziness
  • Clumsiness or frequent falling
  • Moving with extreme caution
  • Excessive spinning with no reported dizziness
  • Impulsive, risk-taking behavior
  • Preferring sedentary activities
  • Rocking, twirling or frequent head tilting
  • Preferring slouching or lying down to sitting

While one child with a vestibular disorder may fear or dislike any activity in which his feet leave the ground — swinging, sliding, bicycle riding, jumping, or climbing — another child with the disorder may constantly seek these same activities. Also, vestibular dysfunction may cause problems with motor and visual coordination.

Positive Methods to Address Symptoms of Vestibular Disorder

If you suspect your child has vestibular issues, it is best to check with a professional before trying to help. Psychologists and occupational therapists often recommend some of the following activities to improve the situation:

  • Somersaults and cartwheels
  • Jumping rope or jumping on a trampoline
  • Bicycle riding
  • Swimming
  • Gymnastics
  • Lying on the stomach
  • Climbing on the jungle gym
  • Balancing on a curb or balance beam
  • Doing cartwheels or somersaults
  • Playing games like Twister

Directing your child to engage in such play may help her vestibular system to improve greatly. It is essential, however, to work under the guidance of someone with professional training so that you don’t urge your child to overdo activities that may cause physical or emotional discomfort or harm.