THE basic function of walking doesn’t usually involve much thought of how it is that we are able to remain balanced.
To see what it feels like to have your balance system fail, find a children’s playground with the piece of equipment in which you sit and spin around as fast as you can turn the steering wheel. Spin yourself around until you feel the need to throw up, then jump out and try to walk in a straight line with your eyes closed. This is how it could feel for someone with a vestibular dysfunction.
The vestibular system provides our sense of balance and spatial orientation. It consists of the inner ear and its connection to our brain, eyes and muscles. In some ways it acts like a spirit level in our head. It allows our bodies to remain upright as we’re snowboarding or skiing and prevents our eyes from bobbing up and down at the same time as our head when we hit some moguls.
Some conditions that can affect the vestibular system include: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV): Characterized by vertigo (the room-spinning feeling), especially when lying down or bending over.
This occurs when crystals in the inner ear are dislodged (eg. from hitting one’s head) and end up floating around in the wrong spot. This can be easily corrected with a manual technique that redirects the crystals back to the correct location, resulting in an instant and dramatic improvement, which amazes me every time I perform it.
Infection: When the inner ear is infected, you should feel something like the way you felt after that exercise at the playground. Early steroids can help minimise permanent damage.
Hypofunction: This occurs when the receptors in the ‘spirit level’ are damaged. This could be the result of infection or sometimes antibiotics (be wary of Gentamicin). Specific vestibular exercises can help recovery but improvement tends to be slower and more limited. Meniere’s (a pressure problem in the inner ear), some migraines, tumours, strokes and brain injuries can also affect the vestibular system.
So the next time you are walking down an icy road in the dark and somehow manage not to slip, spare some thought for your vestibular system.