It is a cliché to say that the human body is a finely-tuned machine. It is also an understatement to say that our bodies are capable of incredible things. But, just like any complex mechanism, the smallest misfire can send the entire system crashing. This cannot be any truer than the vestibular system and the role inner ear crystals play. The vestibule system is responsible for sensory information relating related to motion, spatial awareness and equilibrium—in other words, it’s what we thank (or curse) for influencing our balance. 

One of the main components that effects how our balance behaves are the inner ear crystals, located deep in the nooks and crannies of the ear.  These microscopic ear crystals, also known as otoconia, are pretty remarkable structures. 

Take a look at the image below. These tiny crystals is Otoconia.

Otoconia Under Microscope

WHAT'S SO REMARKABLE IN OTOCONIA?

They harbor a soft, protein core encased in a harder, calcium carbonate shell, you can think of it as resembling an M&M candy. What makes these little crystals so important is that they give us our sense of direction and orientation in relation to the world.

Interesting Fact — the otoconia’s size ranges from 1 to 50 μm (micrometer, which is one millionth of a meter)

The otoconia are housed in a gelatin environment, which allows them to move in accordance with the motions of the body. There are tiny hairs located on the utricle and saccule (we will get to those in a moment) and whenever the otoconia come into contact with these hairs, the hairs send signals to the brain. 

For instance, if you tilt your head to the left to read this sentence, gravity is sending the crystals to the leftward most hairs, which in turn tells the brain your head is positioned to the left. This process happens simultaneously with every movement you make.

Look at the short animation of displacement of otoconia relative to a head position (image courtesy of dizziness-and-balance.com):

inner ear crystals
Interesting Fact — fish also have otoconia, however theirs are much larger and only have three.  

SOME IN-DEPTH LOOK (IF YOU'RE CURIOUS ENOUGH)

Otoconia are located in the utricle and saccule organs in the vestibular system deep within the ear. These two organs are responsible for producing the little crystals, which first begin to appear in the embryonic stage of cell division, shortly after the egg is fertilized by the sperm. 

Each organ is accountable for interpreting certain forms of movement. The utricle is responsible for detecting movements on a horizontal plane, like the acceleration while in a car. The saccule projects the effects of gravity and is on a more vertical plane. The movement of the otoconia in both the utricle and saccule work together to tell the brain where the body is positioned in space.

The ear canal resembles a labyrinth, which through all the twists and turns, leads to the utricle and saccule. It becomes problematic whenever the otoconia escape from their enclosure of the utricle and float freely into the semi-circular canal (otoconia are not able to travel into the canal from the saccule). 

Once detached from the utricle, the otoconia can be displaced in one or more of the three semi-circular canals, which, if enough of them amass in one spot, can disrupt the normal flow of fluid. The disruption causes the most common vertigo condition, Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo—or BPPV.

Post by:

Andrew Nobles

Andrew Nobles graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. During his stint on the Mizzou campus, he wrote for the student newspaper, The Maneater, covering a range of topic in the music and lifestyle beats. Also in his collegiate career, Andrew interned at the Lebanon Daily Record for two summers, fine-tuning his writing and photography skills. In July 2017, Andrew and his lovely wife Venessa will be expecting their first child, at which point he will be a stay-at-home dad and aspiring freelance mogul.

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