Why Do I Feel Dizzy: The Vestibular System Explained

Written by:
Dr. Kelsy Rayl

Have you ever experienced dizziness, nausea, headache, difficulty with balance, or that hard-to-explain feeling of being "off"? If you have, then you've had experience with your vestibular system whether you’ve heard of it or not. If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, you know that doing regular everyday tasks like getting ready in the morning, driving, working, and socializing can become difficult or even impossible. But what even is your vestibular system? How does it work?

Vestibular Function:

The main function of your vestibular system is to tell your brain where your body is in space. This information is of the highest priority for your brain. The brain needs to know where it is in order to accurately control your body. Controlling your body is the brain’s main goal; it’s ability to think and process other information is a secondary function.

Vestibular Components:

There are two main divisions of your vestibular system - peripheral and central.

The peripheral vestibular system is located within your inner ear. In the skull itself there is a system of canals. These canals are filled with fluid.  When your head rotates or your body is in motion, fluid within the canals move and send signals to your brain regarding your location in space. Additionally, within this portion of the system there is a membrane with small crystals which sit on top. The membrane is slightly sticky which keeps the crystals in place. When you're in motion, gravity pulls on the crystals, this input along the membrane provides the brain with information regarding velocity and acceleration.

The central vestibular system is located within your brainstem. In the brainstem, the central vestibular system is responsible for processing all sensory inputs. This includes data coming from your peripheral vestibular system, vision, sense of touch (proprioception), and more. The central vestibular system then filters and consolidates the information to provide your brain with the most precise package of information. The central vestibular system allows us to experience our multi-sensory world in a concise way without being overwhelmed by everything going on around us.

Implications of a Disrupted Vestibular System

With an injury to the head or even a large acceleration or deceleration force, both your peripheral and central vestibular system can become damaged. When either part of your vestibular system is not functioning well, it takes longer for your brain to receive the information it needs to determine your location in space. This results in your brain using more energy than normal to complete its basic function of controlling your body.

Every brain has a max stress level that it can tolerate–and everybody is different. If everything is running correctly, when you wake up in the morning you have very little stress. Throughout the day, as things occur, your brain experiences stress, but never gets anywhere near your max stress level. However, when your vestibular system is disrupted, this automatically puts increased stress on your brain. As you go throughout the day and things occur, you may come close to or even meet your max stress level. When this happens, your brain lets you know in various ways: You may experience dizziness, nausea, headaches, poor concentration, and other symptoms. These are all warning signs that you have met your max stress level and need a break.

Knowledge is Power

If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, you are likely dealing with a vestibular disorder. 

  • Vertigo
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and/or Vomiting
  • Balance Issues
  • Feeling “Off”
  • Headaches
  • Blurry and/or Double Vision
  • Sensitivity to Light and/or Noise
  • Feeling Mentally Foggy
  • Feeling Slowed Down
  • Difficulty with Concentration
  • Fatigue


Your next step is to get evaluated by a vestibular certified physical therapist. At Activcore, you will receive a full hour of one-on-one attention. Our techniques and technology are engaging and effective. You’ll receive a treatment customized to help you achieve your goals in fewer visits. Together, we can help you reduce your symptoms, improve your balance, and restore your quality of life!

Do you need a vestibular evaluation? Click here to get started

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.

Dr. Kelsy Rayl

Physical Therapist | Doctor of Physical Therapy
Kelsy Rayl is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) who specializes in vestibular rehabilitation, concussions, and general orthopedics. She works at Activcore in Castle Rock, CO which is located inside Optimal Health Chiropractic. While she enjoys helping all types of people achieve their activity and lifestyle goals, Kelsy particularly enjoys working with patients dealing with disorders that result in dizziness and patient’s recovering post-concussion. Kelsy is proud to be a part of her patient’s journey as they return to the core activities and daily abilities which make them feel like themselves.
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