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What Is The Vestibular System, and What Does It Do?

Dana Tress 
January 24, 2020
What Is The Vestibular System, and What Does It Do?

To put it simply, the vestibular system is part of your balance system, and is the “gravity detector”. It works in conjunction with your eyes and proprioceptors (sensors in your tendons, ligaments and joints) to give your brain important information about how your body is moving and positioned in space.

The vestibular system is located deep in the inner ear. It is made up of two parts. The vestibule is the central portion of the inner ear. It is comprised of the utricle and saccule. These two organs sense up/down and right/left movements in relation to gravity. Attached to the vestibule are the semicircular canals. There are three of them in each ear, and they sit perpendicular to each other (imagine a floor meeting two walls at a corner of a room). These semicircular canals are full of fluid. When you rotate your head (pitching forward/back, tilting side to side, or rotating right/left), the fluid in these canals swishes around, which triggers a nerve to tell your brain that you are rotating.

The vestibular system works through a series of reflexes to help keep your eyes stable as you move, and keep your neck and spine upright as your head moves (otherwise, the eyes and body would follow the direction your head turns!).

Here’s an example of this, and a fun test for you to try. Below, you will see an “X”. Look at the “X”. Keep your eyes on it, and turn your head side to side. Then try keeping your eyes fixed on the “X” and moving your head up and down. If your vestibular system is not working properly, you would not be able to do this task!


Also, the vestibular system plays a big role in helping you keep your balance when your eyes and proprioceptors are not able to work properly. A situation where this would happen is getting up during the night to use the restroom – imagine a pitch black bedroom with plush carpeting. Someone with a problem in the vestibular system would have a difficult time getting to the bathroom without losing their balance!

In “vestibular rehab,” we use exercises and techniques to improve the function of your vestibular system. People with vestibular problems may experience difficulty with balance, vertigo or dizziness.

If you think this may be a problem for you, send an email or give us a call! We are always more than happy to answer your questions!

Dana Tress
Meet the Author
Dana Tress, PT, CEAS, AIB-CON is a physical therapist specializing in the management of concussion, balance dysfunction, headaches and dizziness in Crystal Lake, Illinois at Smith Physical Therapy Balance + Concussion Center, an award winner in concierge physical therapy services for McHenry County and surrounding regions.