Everyday Sensory: Making Sense of the Vestibular System

by FS&TS

By Jennafer Young, MS, OTR/L

“All this talk about vestibular input is making my head spin!”

Did you catch the pun? Sorry, I couldn’t resist. In a previous post I’ve talked about how easy it is for OTs to get caught up in confusing jargon as we describe your child’s sensory needs. Today I want to remove some of the dizzying terminology by jumping into a concrete explanation of the vestibular system. Ok, enough with the cheesy vestibular-puns. Let’s make some sense of this unusual term.

What is the vestibular sense?

The “vestibular sense” is just another one of your senses. In everyday life we talk about 5 senses, but in actuality we have at least 7 senses: sight, taste, sound, touch, smell, proprioception, and vestibular. (For more on proprioception, see the blog post titled Everyday Sensory: Making Sense of Proprioception.)

Basically, the vestibular sense is your sense of balance...movement...speed...where your head is located in relation to gravity. If you bend down to pick something up off the floor, you know you are upside-down because of your vestibular system. When you spin on a tire swing, that feeling of dizziness is sensed by your vestibular system. When you change your speed from fast to slow, keep your balance on a rocking boat, or even feel carsick, those sensations come from your vestibular system telling your brain about your body’s movement in relation to gravity. This awareness of your movement, speed, and balance is sensed by receptors in your inner ear, and then relayed to your brain through the same nerve that carries auditory (sound) input from your ear.

Why does the vestibular sense matter?

The vestibular sense is what lets you sort out the difference between up and down, spinning and stationary, fast and slow. These sensations are necessary for keeping yourself upright in a moving world and for coordinating safe and controlled movements. Because of the pathways in the brain where vestibular information travels, the vestibular system is also a key player in keeping you alert, controlling posture, and even regulating emotions.

Why does my child seek or avoid vestibular input?  

People have different levels of sensitivity to each type of sensory input. Just like one person may perceive a food to taste spicy while another finds it bland, so some people are more or less sensitive to vestibular input. Some kids are highly sensitive to vestibular input and may become carsick easily or be afraid to let their feet leave the ground. Other kids can’t seem to get enough movement because they have a low sensitivity to vestibular input. To make up for it, they are constantly spinning on the tire swing, jumping into the pool, and rolling down the hill. This more intense movement helps them experience the input they are craving. Others may feel that same level input from less intense movement (like a rocking chair or a slow bike ride).

What activities provide vestibular input?

Any movement-based activity triggers the vestibular system to send messages to the brain about where we are in relation to gravity. But activities that include spinning, head movement, and changes in speed are especially rich in vestibular input.

Here are some activities that provide a lot of vestibular input:

  • -Running, skipping, jumping

  • -Swinging on a playground swing or tire swing

  • -Riding the Merry-Go-Round or See-Saw

  • -Riding a bike

  • -Rolling down the hill

  • -Rocking in a chair or hammock

  • -Jumping on the trampoline

  • -Bouncing on a hippity hop ball