What is the vestibular processing system?

The vestibular processing system plays an essential role in the relationship between our body, gravity and the physical world. It provides us with information about where our body is in space. It is responsible for informing us whether our body is stationary or moving, how fast it is moving, and in what direction.

The vestibular system provides a foundation for the development of all other sensory systems such as touch, vision, sound and proprioception. It is an important element of the central nervous system, and crucial for the development of balance, coordination, motor control of the eye, bilateral coordination (the ability to fully use both sides of the body) and developing confidence and trust of movement. It is the system which allows us to develop a tolerance to motion. Fundamental functions such as our posture and spatial orientation are affected by the vestibular processing system. For instance, our posture may change if we are on a swing, to allow us to remain upright and understand where we are in space. It provides information for our body’s protective reflexes, and prepares us to go into fight or flight mode in emergency situations.

What does it involve and how?

The vestibular system involves vestibular organs and receptors, located in the non-auditory region of the inner ear. It includes two components: the semicircular canal, which detects rotational movements, and the otolith organs (utricle and saccule), which detects linear changes. These organs detect fluid movement and provide information of where our head is in space.This information then updates us of our bodies’ orientation and balance within the surrounding environment, allowing us to experience gravitational security. Gravitational security is the confidence we have that we can maintain our position and interact with the environment without falling. Therefore, when our vestibular system is healthy, we are able to feel confident during activities which require movement, whether our feet are on, or off the ground. We also have control in starting and stopping activities such as swinging, jumping, climbing and somersaulting because our bodies are able to adapt and maintain balance, protecting our bodies and reducing injury.A healthy vestibular system also allows us to be able attend to other sensory inputs that we encounter throughout the day so that we can focus on activities such as reading, eating and simply sitting!

What is this system linked to?

The vestibular system is neurologically interconnected with many other systems in the brain. An example is the limbic system, which is crucial for the development of further physical, emotional and psychosocial regulation and wellbeing. The vestibular processing system is also interconnected to the cerebellum, combining visual information to enable reflexive eye movements. This is needed for tracking moving objects, scanning, discriminating objects and visual gaze stabilisation. This can impact activities such as reading, playing sports, adjusting visual attention whilst moving, and maintaining attention when alternating both looking at the white board and then at their own work.

What happens when there are problems with vestibular processing?

Problems associated with vestibular processing can make many aspects of everyday life very challenging. Children with a dysfunctional vestibular processing system may be hypo or hyper responsive to movement, and can appear to display behaviours of both at any time. Children may appear to be fearful of movement because they feel insecure and unbalanced. This often leads to children preferring sedentary activities, avoiding swings or climbing, or other activities where their feet leave the ground. They may experience sensitivity to changes in walking surfaces and may have difficulty remaining concentrated and upright at school. They also may have difficulty moving through the environment at home or in the playground, often moving cautiously or slow. In younger children, these difficulties often lead to them disliking being moved to their stomach or back, or having their head tilted back.

In contrast, children may appear to be in constant motion, unable to sit still. This can impact activities such as reading and writing at school, and sustaining concentration without moving.These children may appear uncoordinated and clumsy, often falling. They move through environments, seemingly unaware of danger, impulsively jumping or running. These children can also appear to be lost in familiar environments, unable to locate objects. Vestibular dysfunction not only affects us physically, but also psychologically. It can be responsible for high emotional reactions from stressful experiences and can develop into anxiety or insecurity in an environment.

Other difficulties associated with vestibular processing include problems with sequencing activities and issues with bilateral coordination. These activities could include jumping or throwing and catching.

What can be done at home to help promote vestibular processing?

There are a variety of activities can encourage children to engage in at home or the park, to help promote vestibular processing. These include:

  • Playing on swings, slides and seesaws on the playground
  • Hanging upside down on the monkey bars at the playground
  • Going through obstacle courses at the park
  • Rolling down hills
  • Playing catch whist jumping, or on a trampoline
  • Skipping, running or jumping on different surfaces

These are just some of the simple activities we can do at home to help integrate vestibular information with other sensory systems.