The Role of Ears in the Balance System

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Have you ever watched a gymnast on the balance beam and wondered how it is possible to do such amazing acrobatic feats while remaining on a thin elevated object? The things that gymnasts can do are truly amazing, and these feats rely on a fully integrated body with multiple sensors acting in concert.  

On the other end of the spectrum, some people have serious balance disorders that make it impossible to walk a straight line or travel without getting nauseous or faint. For those of us with functional balance systems, our bodies need to use a number of sensory organs at the same time to create a feeling of uprightness and orientation to space. Among these many sensory organs that enable us to maintain balance, the ears are a crucial piece of the puzzle.

How Our Bodies Keep Balance

In one basic sense, our skin, muscles, and joints respond to the sensory stimuli of the world and send that information back to the brain for orientation and balance. We have all had the experience of being knocked off balance by something or tripping, and our bodies sense the ground or other objects to distribute bodily weight and grasp on to something for balance. Slipping on a patch of ice is a great example of the utility of skin, muscles, and joints in the re-orientation process after losing balance. Though one foot may move in a way it does not expect to do, the other can plant itself on steady ground, shifting weight in that direction to avoid a total collapse.

The eyes also play an important part in the process. Visual cues are used to balance the body and brain, and the eyes have to do extra work to avoid blurred vision when we quickly move or reorient. The eyes are important to a sense of equilibrium while riding in a car or boat, and disturbances in that visual connection can lead to motion sickness. The eyes are even necessary to keep a feeling of balance while moving relatively slowly, such as walking or jogging. If we move too quickly with our eyes closed, we can have the experience of disorientation or even vertigo.

In addition to these important sensory organs in the development of balance, our ears may be the most vital.

Our Ears & Balance

A tiny organ in the inner ear, known as the vestibular system, enables our bodies to connect with our brains to maintain balance. This fragile system is made up of three semi-circular canals and two pockets, called the otolith organs, and this system constantly sends sensory information to the cerebellum about the position of the body in space. Without a functional vestibular system, our bodies can feel completely out of whack. This system is particularly important in measuring changes in head position. Something as simple as nodding or shaking the head moves fluid inside the inner ear to stimulate the tiny hairs in the vestibular system. When these hairs are moved even slightly by the fluid stimulus, the brain will receive subtle information about bodily position in space. With that information in use, the brain is able to respond by telling the body what to do in response.

Protecting the ears can be an important behavior to maintain a good sense of balance and overall equilibrium. If the ears have a buildup of earwax, or cerumen, they can affect the ability of the vestibular system to properly respond to changes in bodily and head orientation.

Keep the ears clean in a safe way will make sure you are able to balance and move through the world without trouble. However, damage to the inner ear can also have an effect on equilibrium. If the vestibular system is damaged by debris, excess fluid, or even an attempt to clean the ears too deeply with a cotton swap, equilibrium can be damaged. Ears should be cleaned only in the exterior with a clean, soft cloth or cotton swab, but be sure not to insert anything into the ears. Tempting as it may be, you may be doing more harm than good. If regular cleaning of the outer ear seems to be insufficient to remove earwax, see a hearing specialist for professional assistance.

Audiology Associates of Redding

At Audiology Associates of Redding, we provide comprehensive hearing health services – and that includes keeping your ears healthy. If you suspect you may have impacted earwax, visit us for a hearing test and consultation.