The Role of Ears in the Balance System

The Role of Ears in the Balance System

In hearing health by Laurie Duffy, M.S.

Laurie Duffy, M.S.

Have you ever wondered how we stay upright as we walk through the world? Many of us never ask this question until we begin to have issues with our balance. If the issue isn’t in your legs or joints it often lies in our vestibular system, which is located in the ears. Yes, it is true. If you are having issues with your ears they could be directly affecting how you stay upright and balanced. Often a common side effect of balance issues is connected to issues you may be having with hearing as well.

How We Stay Balanced

It is pretty amazing that we can stand on two legs and stay upright most of the time! While our bones and muscles support us there is a lot more that goes into staying balanced every day. For instance, our eyes contribute to our balance by helping our brains interpret our surroundings. Another way that our body keeps us balanced lies in our heart, which mediates blood pressure throughout our body and adapts to our position.  These organs communicate with our brain to keep us balanced. 

The Vestibular System

However one of the most important issues in balance is in our ears, actually our inner ear. Within our ear are the cochlea and vestibular system. The vestibular system is a sensory system responsible for informing our brain about our motion, head position, and spatial orientation. This in turn allows our brain to help us stay balanced and maintain posture. The vestibular system contains fluid-filled canals and tiny organs, some of which hold stones, made of calcium. In addition, it also contains small hair cells called stereocilia, which respond to fluid motion, which transmit head position to the brain. As you move through the world the fluid in this system moves around causing the calcium stones and stereocilia to move which in turn activates nerves, which inform your brain about your head’s position.

The Cerebellum

The cerebellum is a part of the brain that plays a vital role in virtually all physical movement. It helps a person operate a motor vehicle, toss a ball and walk across a room without falling over. Information from the vestibular system is sent directly to the cerebellum in the brain in order to inform about body position, head rotation, angle and more. In turn the cerebellum uses all this information to keep you upright and balanced, by sending signals to the body to keep you balanced and coordinated as you explore the world.

Hearing Loss and Balance

However, if there is a problem with the vestibular system or any part of the inner ear it can jam the signal to the cerebellum making staying balanced a difficult or impossible task. Vestibular damage can be caused by an ear infection, poor circulation to the ear, excess calcium deposits or head trauma causing traumatic brain injuries. In addition to these risks, anything from loud noise to certain medications can damage the tiny stereocilia causing permanent hearing damage. Because the balance system also relies on stereocilia to report to the brain about balance damage to these irreplaceable and essential cells can leave people being much less sure on their feet.

Hearing Loss and Spatial Awareness

Hearing loss not only keeps you connected to the people in your life but also provides important information about your position in the world in relation to others. For instance, the ability to hear with both ears helps you localize sounds. This means providing you with the proximity, speed and direction of sounds. This can inform you greatly about an approaching vehicle from behind or a warning signal allowing you to move out of the way avoiding injury. This is why people with untreated hearing loss are far more likely to experience falls, accidents, injuries and even hospitalizations, than people who have normal hearing or who treat their hearing loss.

Treating Hearing Loss

If you are having trouble with balance or just trouble hearing sounds it is a good idea to screen for hearing loss as soon as possible. The longer hearing loss goes unaddressed the worse issues with safety and balance can become. Make sure to have your hearing tested regularly to screen for a possible issue before it can progress into a more serious issue. Contact us today to schedule a consultation!