Why Your Vision and Balance Matter
And what to do about it
Let’s get right to the point: if your eyes are unstable, then so are you. Our visual and vestibular systems are directly connected to our musculature. This is truly our “core.” Not your abs. You can do all the planks you want but if your eyes are unstable, then so are you.
There isn’t anyone who couldn’t benefit from having better balance. We know we need to practice balancing in order to get better at it. Of course, we get better at whatever we practice. But that is only part of the story. What people don’t typically know is that it is really important to address why we may not have optimal balance in the first place and then figure out how to fix it.
Head trauma (concussions), disease, certain drugs, the aging process, or any number of factors can lead to a loss of balance. Whether or not you’ve hit your head as a child, been in a fender bender, or experienced something more traumatic, we don’t escape this life without some sort of head trauma or something else that may compromise our sense of balance. Achieving optimal balance is achieved through a a number of different sensory systems:
- Proprioception (joints and muscles), and the
- Vestibular system (which lives in the inner ear responsible for motion, spatial orientation and equilibrium)
These three systems contribute to how well we move through the world. Suffering from motion sickness, for example, or just lack of good balance (particularly notice when our eyes are closed), are signs that we need to work on our vestibular system first and foremost. Working just the proprioceptive system (say the actual act of balancing on one foot) only gives you part of the answer.
If you suffer from lack of balance, chances are you lack vestibular/inner ear function. In reality, everyone could improve their vestibular function. But when we suffer from motion sickness for instance, our brain is getting a sensory mismatch from our 3 systems. In other words, the information coming by way of our eyes, our inner ears and the movement of our body isn’t all coming in to our brain at the same time. An example of this is being below board on a boat where you can’t see the horizon. Our visual input isn’t matching up with our inner ear balance. The mismatch between our different senses is what is making you feel ill. If we have a deficit in our vestibular system, we start feeling sick because that is our brain’s way of telling us to get out of that situation where it doesn’t feel safe.
So what should you do to train or work your vestibular system? Good question! While there are some general drills, you also want to figure out where your individual deficits lie. The goal is to customize exercises or drills to address each person’s individual nervous system. We may start out with just stabilizing our vision (making sure the eyes can hold on an object for just a short period of time). Then we move forward, adding head movement in order to challenge the inner ear. Sometimes we add head movement while holding a gaze, sometimes the gaze should change. Again, it depends where your deficits may lie.
It is important to know that everyone needs vestibular training, whether you are an elite athlete or a desk jockey. But it is also significant to know that you need more or less of it at any given time. If you go at it too hard, you may end up feeling nauseous. So when you start doing what we call “rehab” drills. You take it at a pace where your brain will adapt, but if you go too fast, your brain goes into the fight or flight mode. And you may end up feeling sick. We often say that adaptation occurs right on the edge of discomfort.
As kids, we were constantly challenging our vestibular system. Hanging upside down, spinning, etc., are all ways that kids train their sense of balance. But as we age, we typically stop these activities, which means, just like anything, we lose the ability to adapt to things that we don’t practice.
I’m not advocating you go out and spin, swing or hang upside down. But I would advise you to identify if you have motion sickness or loss of balance in certain positions. Where is your balance compromised, and how can you gently train your brain and body to help you live a pain free nauseous free life! So the next time you are “training”, whether that is in the gym or the gym of life, remember that your brain needs to have good sensory input in order to have good movement output.