What is the Vestibular System?
By: Kati Berlin MS, OTR/L
In occupational therapy we talk a lot about sensory processing and the sensory systems. Most people think of five sensory systems including vision, sound, touch, taste, and smell. We also have three additional sensory systems that are not discussed very often. These include the vestibular system, proprioceptive system, and interoceptive system.
The vestibular system is an important system for balance, energy level, and self-regulation. Vestibular processing occurs when the receptors in our inner ear tell us the position of our head in space. There are three semi-circular canals that register the different kinds of movement that we experience, including moving your head up and down, side to side, and tilting right and left. This is why occupational therapists use swings and other equipment that provide linear and rotary movement while children are in sitting or side lying positions. We feel and process vestibular input when walking, running, driving in the car, playing on playground equipment, and during other movement tasks.
When someone does not register vestibular input as easily as other people do, it may lead them to have poor balance or it may lead them to seek out vestibular input in other ways. Using therapy lingo, this is the child that is “under-responsive” or has a “lower threshold” for vestibular input. Kids who are constantly on the move, like to spin themselves around in circles, or never seem to get dizzy, are typically seeking out vestibular input. They may also become overly excited by vestibular input, take unsafe movement risks, and have a hard time sitting still for longer periods of time.
We tend to use multifaceted approaches in occupational therapy to address concerns. With vestibular processing we would recommend therapy services that provide sensory integration, home activities, and modifications or accommodations that would help support attention while the underlying factors are addressed in therapy sessions.