Balance is critical to our daily functioning as beings in space and depends on a delicate set of operations. Our body’s ability to balance can be compromised for many reasons: neuropathy or loss of sensation on the bottom of your feet, impaired vision, and health conditions such as stroke, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, brain injury, vertigo. Balance can also be impaired by natural aging processes, orthopedic injuries, and muscle weakness.
Here are the components that contribute to balance. Then read ideas about what you can do to improve your chances of staying upright and reduce your chances of falling.
1. Eyesight: Our ability to see provides us information about where we are in space and our relationship to our surroundings. Our vision lets us know if we, or our environment, are moving. Visual acuity and depth perception can greatly affect our balance. There are eye exercises you can perform and strategies to employ to account for vision loss.
2. Vestibular Sensation: Located in our inner ear is the otolithic system, comprised of uticles and saccule sacs, which sense motion. Stimulation of hair-like nerve endings in these sacs send messages to the brain to indicate direction of movement- turning, rotating, side-bending, moving forward or backwards. These motion sensors within the inner ear help with a number of reflexes. One important reflex is called the “righting reaction”. This reaction comes into play when a cat falls from a high surface. The cat uses its “righting reaction” to orient itself so that its head is upwards and its paws down towards the ground. We have a similar type of “righting reaction”. There are exercises that can improve your vestibular balance and “righting reaction”.
3. Joint proprioception: Our joints have receptors which give us feedback about our location in space aka, proprioception. Our joint spaces can be compromised through injury, poor posture, imbalance of muscles and ligaments. When the joint space is compromised, the proprioceptive mechanism can be altered so that the joint’s ability to respond quickly to losing balance is delayed. Perhaps the message of falling or rolling your ankle outwards is slow getting to your brain. Then the reaction time of muscles to “correct” is also too slow, leading to muscle or ligament injury. Optimizing joint space and surrounding tissues are thus important not only to enhance one’s balance but also to reduce further risk of injury to joints themselves.
4. Sensation: Loss of sensation on the bottom of one’s feet can occur with neuropathy. The diminished ability to sense where one’s foot is on the ground, how it’s positioned, or whether or not one’s foot is on level or uneven surfaces affects balance. Learning exercises that help to retrain and optimize sensation on the bottom of your feet through sensory tactile integration is critically important to improvement.
Balance is impaired when any of these four components is compromised. Balance is exponentially worse if more than one system is weakened. There is hope though and balance can be improved by enhancing its other components. This is analogous to someone who is blind. Their ability to hear and their tactile senses will become heightened. If the sensation on the bottom of one’s feet is diminished, working on enhancing the other systems that contribute to balance could include using your vision to “spot” a stable object or making sure the bigger muscles in your body that help stabilize one’s trunk are strong and being recruited in a timely fashion.
If you have concerns about your own or your loved one’s balance and seek guidance, please contact us. We would be happy to provide you some tips.