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The Vestibular System: Our Sixth Sense

Remember the 5 senses we all learned about in Kindergarten? Well, OT’s (and other professions I’m sure) actually consider there to be 8 senses. In addition to the 5 we all know: hearing, vision, touch, taste, and smell, we also include vestibular, proprioception and interoception on this list.

Today let’s take a look at the Vestibular System: Our Sixth Sense:

What is the Vestibular System?

  1. The Vestibular System is the sensory system that provides the dominant input about movement and equilibrium.

  2. It contributes to our balance system and our sense of spatial orientation.

  3. Our vestibular sense provides information related to movement and head position.

Why Do We Need It?

The vestibular system is important for development of balance, coordination, eye control, attention, being secure with movement and some aspects of language development.

Vestibular Input Has an Impact on Arousal

Vestibular stimulation is the input that your body receives when you experience movement or gravity. It can be mild like nodding your head or climbing stairs or it can be intense like skydiving or riding a rollercoaster.

Too much vestibular input may lead to over-arousal!

Too little vestibular input may lead to under-arousal!

Vestibular Input is Powerful!

  1. Vestibular input is thought to be the strongest of the brain stem sensations and to last the longest in the brain chemical release.

  2. Vestibular input decreases stress chemicals the fastest and is the fastest way to calm the central nervous system.

  3. Slow rhythmic swinging on a swing hung from a single point is believed by sensory experts to be the most ideal source of vestibular input. 15 minutes can last up to 4-8 hours in the central nervous system.—

  4. Other types of input only last 2 hours or so, thus must be done more often.

  5. Slow, rhythmical, predictable movement is calming. For example, swinging, rocking, walking, or slow, gentle spinning in one direction.

  6. Quick, arrhythmical, unpredictable movement is arousing. For example, jumping, bouncing, running, playground activities like the teeter totter, slide or climber, sports and games like hopscotch, soccer, hockey or tag.

Vestibular Activities for the Home and Classroom

  1. Swinging on a swing from a single hung point (Rhythmical for calming; arhythmicaland/or rotary for alerting).

  2. Swinging on a playground swing— or climbing structure.

  3. Bouncing on a large ball or sitting on a therapy/yoga ball for table top tasks— (i.e., homework) or at the dinner table.

  4. Rocking back and forth onto hands and feet while lying on belly over large ball.—

  5. Rocking in chair or swinging in a blanket (two people hold either side).

  6. Gliders.

  7. Sit-n-Spin/Spinning in a computer chair.

  8. Spinning or rocking in a Bilabo.

  9. Hanging upside down on monkey bars—.

  10. Sliding down slides—.

  11. Jumping on a trampoline or mini-trampoline.

  12. Jumping Rope.

  13. Play hopscotch—.

  14. Tumbling or rolling on a mat, carpet or sofa cushions placed on the floor.

Vestibular Warning!!

  • Supervise and monitor activities as “overload” of the nervous system can occur. Signs of overload include irregular breathing, color change, sweating, pallor, increased anxiety, change in sleep patterns, etc.—

  • An activity should be stopped immediately if the child shows any signs of distress and/or discomfort.—

  • Consultation with an Occupational Therapist is recommended.—



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