In my last blog post, we covered the visual system and how it impacts our movement. Be sure to give it a read if you haven’t already, as it is important to become familiar with it before we move into the vestibular system.
For a great primer on the vestibular system, watch this great three minute video that covers the basics by clicking here.
One of the main reasons that our vestibular system is so important is that it tells our brain where we are in space; which way is up, or which way our head is moving, and orients us in every position. If you check out the link above, it will give you a great visual on what is exactly happening in this system when you move your head. In fact, I recommend you check it now before we continue.
So now that you have seen what happens with the vestibular system when you move your head, lets talk about what happens if you sit all day, without moving your head, consume too much alcohol, or you receive a head injury at some point in your life.
Having a head injury, wether it was 10 minutes or 10 years ago, can have a huge impact on your vestibular system. This leads us to experience Transneuronal Degeneration, which we will cover further in another post, but you can check out this link if you want to read about it sooner. If you have ever felt dizzy from drinking too much, that is your vestibular system getting shut down from toxicity. If you are a frequent drinker this can be very damaging over time leading a variety of issues.
Our brain needs information to stay functional, and our vestibular system plays a vital role in making our brains feel happy and safe. When we don’t move our heads enough or in the right way, the neurons within the vestibular system begin to fire with less frequency. With a decreased frequency of firing in the vestibular system, our brain begins to get less information on where we are in space, which then reduces our overall movement abilities in terms of accuracy, coordination and speed of the desired movement. This system also has a direct pathway that maintains good posture and control of your glutes. Postural control is very important if you want to breathe well, squat properly, or do pretty much anything that has to do with changing your body composition.
Now that we know poor vestibular function causes us to move poorly, we can talk about how it causes pain.
When our brain lacks information from the vestibular system, it can use pain as a protective mechanism, especially when you try to push yourself to the limit. A perfect example of this would be when someone begins an intense fitness program after being sedentary for a long period of time.
So I will use an example using Bob as my should-be client. Bob has had multiple head injuries which caused damage to his vestibular system 10 years ago. Bob has noticed a severe decrease in his ability to move without pain, he has gained weight, formed a horrible caveman like posture, and randomly gets dizzy. On top of all these issues, he uses food as a way to make him feel better, specifically foods that are high in sugar.
So January rolls around and Bob decideds that it’s time to get in shape. Bob has tried this same new years resolution for the last 5 years, but has failed to improve his health every time. Like most people trying to get back into shape, Bob is very motivated and decided to hit the weights five days per week. The problem is that Bob does not understand that his nervous system’s capacity for handling physical stress is very minimal because of his poor vestibular system function. This poor vestibular system function is confusing his brain, as his brain compares that poor information from the vestibular system to the information his brain is receiving from his visual and proprioceptive systems (we will cover the proprioceptive system next). This is called a sensory motor mismatch and it stresses out the brain much more that it should be.
After Bob has started his new fitness routine, with all his current movement issues, he has great momentum the first two weeks. He is happy so far, but at the end of week three he notices he is not losing weight anymore, his joints are starting to hurt and he is feeling fatigued. Bob just looks at this as ” part of the process ” and continues piling on the weight each week, thinking it is going to make him a physical beast. Finally, Bob hits a wall where he cannot add any more weight and he begins to look like his body is going the other direction because he doesn’t sleep enough and now his hormones are spiraling in the wrong direction, consequentially leading to an increase in body fat.
Bob then looks at the situation and says “ok, I did my working out for the year” and justifies it with the effort he put in. Sadly, Bob has just dug the hole a little deeper for next year without even knowing it. He will probably add on another 10 pounds and continue this process over and over.
Now don’t get me wrong, Bob probably has other issues that he needs to work on to get into shape, but if he would have addressed the vestibular system from the beginning, he would have had a drastically different experience.
Don’t be like Bob. Find help if you do not know what you are doing especially if you have a history of head injuries.
For information on how to work on improving the effeciency of your vestibular system, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
-Terry Reddinger, Neural Performance Coach at True Motion Human Performance