The Three Balance Systems

Have You Experienced a Fall in the Last 6 Months? Are You Concerned About Falling Again?

If you or a loved one has experienced a fall within the last 6-12 months, you already know how life-altering it can be. Besides any physical injury you may have experienced, the real damage tends to occur a little more slowly over the following weeks and months. Once you fall, your whole world changes. Where you once felt comfortable and confident, you now start to doubt your abilities.

As you start to question your balance, your activity level gradually declines, and a few things start to happen. First, you become less mobile, and by default your strength and balance start to decline. Second, you don’t get out as much as you used to. Activities like going for walks with a friend or spouse, or just going out and socializing with friends start to become too much to handle. Ultimately, what’s happened is this: the fear of falling again has limited the amount of enjoyment in your life.

I know this all sounds doom and gloom, but rest assured that I’m going somewhere with this. If you or a loved one are caught in this downward spiral and are looking to take control of your balance and regain your active lifestyle, I have good news for you: there’s a lot that can be done! But before I get into too many specific strategies that will help you improve your balance, let’s first take a look at the various factors that control your balance and help keep you stable.

The “3 Balance Systems”

Your body depends on 3 systems that work together to keep you balanced and stable. Here they are:

  1. Vision: your vision constantly sends input to your brain telling it where your body is located in relation to your surroundings. When your head or body move, everything in your visual field moves as well, and this rapid input to your brain gives it valuable information (assuming your eyes are open!).
  2. Sensation/Spatial Awareness: this second balance system has a few features. First, the pressure along the bottoms of your feet gives your brain input when you shift your weight. For example, when you shift your weight to the right, you should be able to feel more pressure on your right foot. Second, you have special receptors in your joints that tell your brain where you are in relationship to space (we also call this “proprioception”).
  3. Inner Ear: your inner ear, aka your “vestibular system”, sends input to your brain regarding the movement of your head in relationship to gravity. Do you remember spinning around really fast as a kid and then stopping and feeling like everything around you was still spinning? This sensation occurs because the fluid in your inner ears is still moving, even though your body stopped spinning, which is confusing for your brain. This sensation of spinning is also referred to as “vertigo”.

Damage to any of your 3 Balance Systems can have a negative impact on your ability to keep your body stable. However, people who fall and then become less active typically have issues with weakness of these systems, which is very treatable.

In addition to these balance systems, there are a multitude of other factors that can negatively affect your balance, including the following: strength, flexibility, endurance, pain, side effects from medications, damage to your central nervous system (such as a stroke or Parkinson’s), and damage to your inner ear.

If I haven’t already sufficiently confused you, let me summarize things and try to make sense of them for you: there are a number of things that can influence your balance at any given time. If you’ve suffered from a fall already and are experiencing difficulty with your balance, it’s very likely that 2-3 of the things I mentioned above can be improved in order to help you regain your balance.

I imagine that’s enough information for you to digest for one week. Stay tuned for more information about how to improve your balance and prevent another fall.

 

The author, Paul Hendricks, is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Owner of Body Balance Physical Therapy in Lakeway. He’s happy to answer any questions about balance and fall prevention by phone at 512-261-8699 or by email at Paul@BodyBalanceLakeway.com

Body Balance Physical Therapy specializes in helping people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s+ stay healthy active and independent… without surgery or pain pills… even if you have been told you are just getting old!!!