How Does the Ear Help to Maintain Balance and Equilibrium of the Body?
The ear is one of the sensory organs that help us to hear. An interesting point to note is that the ear not only helps in hearing but also helps us to maintain the balance and equilibrium of our body. Without the ear, we would not be able to balance our body with respect to the gravitational pull of the earth.
To understand how the ear helps us to balance our body, we need to know about the structure of the ear.
Structure of the Ear
The ear is made up of three different parts -
- outer ear
- middle ear
- inner ear
The inner ear is the part that helps us to balance our body. The inner ear is involved in both the functions of hearing and balancing.
Structure of the Inner Ear
The inner ear is enclosed within the temporal bone of the skull.
The inner ear is made up of two small parts -
- semicircular canals
The cochlea is a coiled structure that resembles the shell of the snail.
The cochlea and the semicircular canals are connected by a structure called the vestibule.
The vestibule has two smaller structures called the saccule and the utricle.
How does the inner ear help to maintain balance and equilibrium?
Two structures of the inner ear help to maintain balance and equilibrium -
- the three semicircular canals that are interconnected and positioned at right angles to each other just like a gyroscope.
- the vestibule (has the saccule and utricle) that connects the semicircular canals to the cochlea
The semicircular canals and the vestibule of the inner ear together help to maintain the balance and equilibrium of the body.
How do the semicircular canals detect signals?
The semicircular canals are filled with a fluid called the endolymph. Each one of the semicircular canals has an enlarged cuplike structure called the cupula.The cupula has thin hair cells.
Whenever the head moves, the fluid in the canals move. When the fluid in the canals moves, the hair cells move in the direction of the fluid and generate signals that detect the changes in the position of the body.
How does the vestibule detect signals?
The utricle and the saccule inside the vestibule are lined by hair cells that help to detect linear acceleration or movement of the body in a straight line.
The utricle and saccule are covered by a jelly-like layer that has tiny calcium crystals. When the head tilts or changes in position with respect to gravity, the calcium crystals are displaced, and this displacement makes the hair cells bend and detect signals regarding the changes in the position of the body.
The signals that are detected by the hair cells of both the semicircular canals and the vestibule are converted into nerve impulses and sent to the brain through the vestibular nerve. The brain also receives signals from the visual and skeletal system of the body.
The brain coordinates all three signals from the inner ear, visual system and skeletal system to maintain balance and equilibrium of the body.
How does the inner ear help in hearing?
The cochlea of the inner ear helps in hearing. The cochlea is lined by tiny hair cells and is filled with fluid.
When the middle ear transfers vibrations to the cochlea, the fluid in the cochlea is displaced. This displacement of the fluid makes the hair cells move.
Signals from these cells are converted into nerve impulses and sent to the brain through the auditory nerve thereby helping in the process of hearing.
Diseases Caused by Abnormalities of the Inner Ear
Vertigo is characterized by a sense of dizziness and spinning when the person is perfectly still. Nausea and vomiting sometimes accompany it.
Vertigo can be a result of the following conditions -
- Labyrinthitis - a condition caused by infection or inflammation of the inner ear causing dizziness and loss of balance
- Vestibular Neuronitis - a condition caused by the inflammation of the vestibular nerve
Tinnitus is characterized by a continuous ringing or buzzing noise in the ear when there are no ringing or buzzing sounds around. This condition is mainly caused due to damage to the hair cells in the cochlea region of the inner ear. Intake of certain medications can also cause Tinnitus.
Meniere's Disease -
Meniere's Disease is characterized by the ringing of ears, ear fullness, progressive hearing loss and poor equilibrium. This disease is caused when the semicircular canals do not function properly.
Perilymph Fistula is a condition caused when the fluid in the inner ear leaks into the middle ear. This can happen when there is a head injury or extreme physical exertion.
The inner ear is one of the organs that help to maintain the balance and equilibrium of the body. The semicircular canals and the vestibule are the two parts of the inner ear that are directly involved in helping the body to maintain balance and equilibrium.