There are three systems in the human body that contribute to our ability to balance. These systems work together to tell our brain where we are in space and how we are positioned relative to the world around us. The three systems include the vestibular system, the visual system, and the somatosensory system. Let’s break down each of these systems and discuss how they help us maintain our balance.
Our vestibular system consists of our inner ear, vestibular nerve, and the vestibular nuclei that is housed in our brainstem. We have one inner ear, one vestibular nerve, and one vestibular nuclei on each side of our head. This system is primarily responsible for telling us how our head is moving and where our head is in relation to gravity. The inner ear can sense tilt, translation, and rotation of the head. The vestibular nerve sends this information to our vestibular nuclei in our brainstem where the information is used to tell us where our head is in space and how it is moving.
Our visual system is a bit more familiar to most people. It mostly consists of our eyes, our ocular nerve, and our primary visual cortex in our brain. Our eyes take in information about light, color, and visual movement, and the ocular nerve transmits that information to the brain to be interpreted. Vision is important for balance because it lets us know where we are relative to the world around us.
Our somatosensory system consists of both touch receptors and our proprioceptive system. Our proprioceptive system is made up of sensors in our muscles and joints. These proprioceptive sensors detect stretch, compression, and movement of our joints and muscles. The sensors then send that information to our brain to be interpreted. The proprioceptive system is important for balance because it tells our brain where our body is in space and how each joint/muscle is oriented relative to each other.
Two joints in our body that are very important in terms of proprioception are the ankles and the neck. The ankles tell us how our body is oriented relative to the floor and the neck tells us how our head is oriented relative to our body. Touch receptors also play a role in balance because they allow us to feel the floor underneath our feet. This helps us identify the type of surface we are walking on, soft vs firm, and adjust accordingly.
Each of these systems play a critical role in balance when they are functioning properly. No one system is sufficient to maintain one’s balance because each system has limitations that allow them to be tricked or rendered ineffective.
Our vestibular system is unable to tell us how our body is moving since it is only located in our head. Additionally, our vestibular system tends to function poorly during very slow movements of our head. Our visual system is unable to delineate between self-motion and motion in the world around us. Additionally, it is inhibited in low light or dark environments. Our somatosensory system is inhibited by joint replacements and pain. Additionally, it is confused by soft/compliant surfaces such as plush carpet or sand.
As you can see, our balance systems are complex and intricate. They require optimal functioning in each of the three systems in order to be balanced in all situations. If you feel like one or more of these systems is not working optimally for you, we would love to help you at Balance Chicago.