By Morgan Leppla
Balancing is pretty great. Not needing to think about how to stand upright is something I yield great benefit from, but is something that occurs without conscious effort or thought. I am fortunate, but many are not. This week is Balance Awareness Week, and HHF is highlighting the the inner ear and its mechanics!
The inner ear is a tiny but notable body part; not only is it important to hearing, but it is also where the balance organs and nerves are located.
The basic components of the inner ear include semicircular canals, the cochlea, the utricle, the saccule, and the vestibulocochlear nerve. The cochlea and one half of the vestibulocochlear nerve (the cochlear nerve) are in charge of hearing. The remaining semicircular canals, utricle, saccule, and vestibular nerve are responsible for balance.
There are three semicircular canals that contain fluid to activate sensory hair cells, which are arranged at ninety degree angles and detect different kinds of movement: up and down, side to side, and tilting. The utricle connects the semicircular canals to the saccule, which also detect motion. They are located in the vestibule inside of the labyrinth, which is the bony outer wall of the inner ear. All of this is the vestibular system.
But it is not only the vestibular system that assists with balance. Vision and sensory receptors (muscles, joints, skin, etc.) all transmit messages to the brain that work together and voila! balance.
Vestibular disorders can have a big effect on one’s equilibrium. People might experience dizziness, vertigo, or imbalance, as well as other inner ear-related issues. A commonly diagnosed balance disorder is Meniere’s disease, which is one focus areas for our Emerging Research Grant (ERG) recipients.
Balance disorders can disrupt everyday life for those who experience them. It is also fairly common - in fact, about 69 million Americans or 35% of adults aged 40 and up have experiences vestibular dysfunction at some point in their life!
While it might be hard to believe something as tiny as the inner ear can affect a person’s ability to participate fully in daily life, HHF is fully committed to funding research that explores hearing and balance health.