Remember the days with your arms stretched wide, spinning in circles until you fell down in the grass giggling? Remember the days when hanging upside down on the monkey bars was a preferable way to spend your time? Remember a time when an amusement park was the perfect way to spend an afternoon?
All these things used to spark emotions of excitement and happiness, so why do they now spark emotions of dread? Why does life seem to become a boring routine as we age? Why are we now avoiding activities that used to be so much fun? Well, many systems in our bodies tend to be neglected as we age, but none are more ignored than our vestibular system.
What’s our vestibular system? I am glad you asked! The Vestibular system is the sensory system, in the inner ear, that provides the majority of information to the brain about our body’s orientation in space. It is also responsible for coordinating eye movement with head movement. If our body is moving faster than our vestibular system can communicate, the brain gets really confused on our bodies position. When the brain gets one set of information from our eyes, muscles and somatosensory system (that’s the feeling of the floor coming up through your feet!), but conflicting information from the vestibular system, a host of symptoms can appear. People complain of nausea, seasickness, a floating feeling, loss of coordination, falls and vertigo.
In the beginning of my physical therapy career, I assumed that my patients with balance impairments had them because they were not moving, resulting in muscle atrophy and weakness. As I have evolved, I realized that I was right about the immobility, but I was missing a large piece to their balance impairment. Their immobility may have affected their strength, but it created a greater problem within their vestibular system. Without the normal head movements achieved when you are mobile, the vestibular system’s function begins declining, and eventually your balance becomes impaired.
Now, there are many different insults that can cause vestibular impairment. However, what this blog post is discussing is vestibular hypofunction as a result of immobility. You would be amazed at how many people suffer from this, and it is easy to see why! We stopped spinning in the grass, and hanging upside down on the monkey bars.