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All About the Vestibular System: Vestibular Sense and Input

May 15th, 2020 | by Elena Falcy
Elena Falcy

Elena Falcy

May 15th, 2020

What is the Vestibular System? 

The vestibular sensory system are small structures located in our inner ears and provide information to our brain about the position of our head, motion, and works with other sensory systems to tell us where our body is in space. When the vestibular system works correctly, the constant presence of gravity allows all our other sensory systems to work cohesively. The vestibular system contributes to our ability to balance, maintain an upright posture, and stabilize the head and body when moving. It has no effect on muscle strength which is also needed for postural control. Occupational and physical therapy help children integrate vestibular input in order to successfully navigate and engage in their environment.  

Dysfunctions in Vestibular Processing 

Symptoms of vestibular processing difficulties include vertigo, oscillopsia or gaze instability, diminished balance, and delayed gross motor milestones. Along with these symptoms, children may be under- or over-responsive to vestibular input. Under-responsiveness is characterized by being clumsy, ability to spin without feeling dizzy, difficulty with bilateral tasks, and poor posture. Children who are under-responsive need more input than average in order to feel the effects on their bodies. This means that they often seek vestibular input through crashing or falling, swinging, spinning, and other movement-based activities. Over-responsiveness is characterized by gravitational insecurity, which is the fear of swinging and spinning, as well as going on elevators or escalators. Children with gravitational insecurity perceive gravity more intensely and become anxious with small movements such as leaning back and stepping off stairs. 

Vestibular Activities for Children who are Under-Responsive

    1. Have your child propel themselves on a swing 
    2. Encourage your child to jump on a trampoline 
    3. Have your child engage in activities to incorporate balance and movement such as riding a bike 
    4. Try some activities that incorporate bilateral movements such as jumping jacks or jump rope 
    5. Use a scooter board while lying on their stomach to propel themselves (but make sure the area is clear of any hazards that they may knock into) 

Vestibular Activities for Children who are Over-Responsive

    1. Allow your child to sit in your lap while swinging 
    2. When swinging, allow your child’s feet to touch the ground 
    3. Have your child sit on a yoga ball and help them bounce while their feet remain on the ground 
    4. If you have large trampoline have your child sit while you gently bounce on the trampoline 
    5. Use a weighted backpack when engaging in activities that normally elicit an anxiety response such as stepping off a curb (only use up to 5 – 10% of your child’s body weight) 

If you’re looking for more information, we have additional resources available for you! 

About the Author 

Elena Falcy is a pediatric occupational therapist candidate at NAPA Center. She loves cold days when she can wrap up in a blanket and engage in one of her favorite hobbies, cross-stitching. One of her goals in life is to visit every national park in the United States. 

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