Our ears are essential to the act of balancing, and they operate in a number of ways. The most important function of the ears in the process of balancing has to do with a tiny set of organs in the inner ear called the vestibular system. This network of chambers, fluid, and tiny hair-like cells enables to the body to maintain equilibrium. The fluid in this system touches the tiny hair-like cells at different levels of gravity, enabling the brain to sense where the body is oriented in space. since the ears are located in the head, particular issues can arise while shaking the head, nodding, or certainly when putting the head below the center of gravity, such as when doing a headstand or other gymnastics. In most cases, this fluid system is remarkably able to keep the mind from feeling dizzy even when shaking or bobbing the head very rapidly.
Our Vestibular System & Hearing
The vestibular system is closely related to the hearing functions of the ears, but researchers have wondered if hearing ability is directly connected to the ability to balance. In addition to the fluid sensations of the vestibular system, the ability to hear might be linked to the sense of balance, as well. A recent study by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO concluded that the connection between hearing and balance might be more direct than we thought. This connection was determined through a study based on the use of hearing aids.
As we know, hearing aids do not directly affect the vestibular system that is responsible for the ability to balance. Instead, hearing aids change the profile of sound pressure entering the ear, amplifying sounds in the ranges that are missing in an individual’s hearing ability. Without the ability to directly change the make-up of the vestibular system, researchers were curious if the use of hearing aids would help achieve better balance. Remarkably, the answer is yes!
In this study, 14 older adults with hearing loss were tested on their ability to balance. Using a foam pad, they were asked to maintain standing balance for as long as possible. Many of the study participants struggled to balance for a full 20 seconds in their current state. However, with the introduction of hearing aids, they were able to balance about 10 seconds longer. Although 10 seconds of balance might seem like a small amount of time, it was a remarkable improvement for those who were only able to balance about 20 seconds in the first place.
This study leads to further questions about the relationship between hearing and balance. Although former research has emphasized the role of the vestibular system in maintaining equilibrium, hearing may help us achieve balance in ways formerly not identified.
How Our Senses Help Us Keep Our Balance
We use the other sensory organs of the body to maintain balance. The skin, joints, and muscles clue the brain to factors that prevent balancing, such as tripping or walking up an incline. When these organs send information o the brain, it is quick to respond with instructions about how to operate in order to maintain balance and to avoid a fall. Similarly, the eyes send information to the brain about the orientation of the body in space without our conscious awareness of the process. The eyes scan the horizon and other gravitational clues to let the brain know how we are poised to move and respond to the environment. Although the ears were considered primarily a source of leveling information through the fluid-to-hair connection in the vestibular system, sounds might help balance in a distinct way. By letting the body know the direction of wind, stable objects, and other features of environmental architecture, the body can position itself more effectively. As well, the reverberation effects of sound can help us understand where the ground and objects are positioned. Although we do not have the highly developed sonar ability of bats, using echo location to position the body in space, our ears do sense the reverberation of sound bouncing off objects and back to the body. With this knowledge enhanced by hearing aids, a person with hearing loss may have an easier time maintaining balance.
Posey Hearing Center
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