What Is the Vestibular System?
The vestibular system is how the body senses movement and where the body is in relation to gravity. When you’re swinging on a swing, running, or dancing, you are giving vestibular input to your body. Your vestibular system is also responsible for telling you whether you’re upside-down (i.e., on a rollercoaster, doing a cartwheel), going too fast around curves when in the backseat of a car (motion sickness!) and the sensation of balance (why you feel you might fall when learning to ride a bike, surf, or skate).
There are MANY forms of vestibular input. Here are a few others:
- rolling down a hill
- swinging on a hammock
- riding on a rollercoaster
- rocking in a rocking chair
- playing/racing on a scooter board
- jumping on a trampoline
- riding a merry-go-round
- sitting on a T-stool (shown below; sitting on it requires balance and helps works the core)
- navigating ramps, stairs, curbs, escalators, and sensations in a moving elevator
- sitting on a therapy ball
So what does the vestibular system have to do with occupational therapy?
Vestibular input has much to do with how we interpret sensations, because it can have an organizing effect on our nervous system and entire sensory system (Case-Smith, 2005).
When occupational therapists work with kids with sensory needs, straight, linear motions (such as pushing a child on a swing) can re-introduce the sensation as predictable and organized. So, neurons in the brain begin to process and make better sense of the vestibular stimulation of swinging. Because the vestibular system is part of the nervous system, this has a carryover effect.
Some kids may be over-sensitive to vestibular input and experience the unpleasant side effects more frequently, or fear being off of the ground (i.e., on a ladder, spinning circle at the playground, feeling easily carsick or seasick, * for some, even swinging on a swing can cause feelings of nausea and dizziness), when our vestibular system is challenged to make sense of the feelings.
Other kids may CRAVE vestibular input (e.g., are under-responsive to it) and constantly want to move their body, especially when sitting still.
Rotational motions, such as spinning in a full circle on a tire swing, can have a very potent effect on the sensory system, lasting up to 8 hours! However, it is possible for vestibular sensation to be given incorrectly, thus having a negative effect, causing a child to become pale, sluggish, or nauseas. Typically, rotational motions in therapy are used in moderation, in a specific order, and only to produce the necessary response!
Check out this video, which explains the vestibular system in simple terms. Also great for kids to watch! http://www.youtube.com/watch/?v=pEbILhUc1Pc
Case-Smith, J. (Ed.). (2005). Occupational Therapy for Children (6th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby-Year Book.