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Signs and Causes of Vestibular Dysfunction

The Vestibular System is a major contributor to our sense of balance and spatial orientation. Vestibular sense provides information related to movement and head position, sort of an internal GPS. This “GPS” is important for development of balance, coordination, eye control, attention, being secure with movement and some aspects of language development. The vestibular system is provides and receives information from other body systems like the visual and auditory systems, as well as our hands and feet.

About twenty percent of visual neurons (nerve cells) respond to vestibular stimulation like spinning, head shaking, or rocking. Adults and children who have suffered damage to the vestibular organs of the inner ear can learn to depend on visual information to maintain their balance. However, if that visual information is removed (eyes closed or being in the dark), distorted or poorly developed, the individual will feel disoriented and it may lead to an unusual fear of movement (gravitational insecurity).

Anything that disrupts auditory information can also affect vestibular functioning. Blocked Eustachian tubes in the inner ear, for example, create mild balance problems. Children who have suffered repeated ear infections may develop problems with their vestibular system leading to some of the problems previously noted.

There are also other systems that provide sensory information to the vestibular system. The hands and fingers, for example, send information to the brain about the relationship between the body and stationary surfaces in the environment. The pressers on the soles of the feet provide important information to the vestibular areas of the brain about the texture of the ground. This information is used to calculate weight and posture adjustments that will allow upright balance and movement.

Vestibular System Dysfunctions can cause anxiety, nausea, a need for self-stimulation (slapping, pinching, biting, etc.), abnormalities in muscle tone, academic problems, and many more developmental problems. Many symptoms are often overlooked as behavioral problems, particularly when vision and vestibular are both poorly developed. Signs of vestibular system dysfunction can be separated into two main categories; Hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness or intolerance to movement) and Hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness/underwhelmed by movement and continually seeking out additional sensory information).

HYPERSENSITIVITY TO MOVEMENT (over-responsive):

• Avoids/dislikes swings, ladders, slides, or merry-go-rounds
• Loses balance easily and may appear clumsy
• Prefers sedentary tasks and avoids taking risks, and may appear “wimpy”
• Avoids/dislikes elevators and escalators and actually get motion sickness from them
• May physically cling to an adult they trust
• May appear terrified of falling even when there is no real risk of it
• Afraid of heights, even the height of a curb or step
• Fearful of feet leaving the ground
• Fearful of going up or down stairs or walking on uneven surfaces
• Afraid of being tipped upside down, sideways or backwards
• Startles if someone else moves them; i.e., pushing his/her chair closer to the table
• May be fearful or have difficulty riding a bike, jumping, hopping, or balancing on one foot (especially if eyes are closed)
• May have disliked being placed on stomach as an infant

HYPOSENSITIVITY TO MOVEMENT (under-responsive):

• Always in motion, can’t seem to sit still
• Craves fast, spinning, and/or intense movement experiences like scary rides at amusement parks
• Loves being tossed in the air excessively
• Could spin for hours and never appear to be dizzy
• Always jumping on furniture, trampolines, spinning in a swivel chair, or getting into upside down positions
• Loves to swing as high as possible and for long periods of time
• Is a “thrill-seeker”; dangerous at times
• Rocks body, shakes leg, or head while sitting

If you feel you or your child may be suffering from vision or vestibular dysfunction, see your doctor and call us to set up a comprehensive vision exam that includes assessments of Vision-vestibular integration.

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