Understanding the “3 Balance Systems”
Having a slip and fall can be a life-altering event.
In the short-term, these accidents usually lead to some nasty injuries, such as broken hips, concussions, and broken wrists, just to name a few.
If you take a longer view, repeated falls tends to lead to fear of falling, and the fear of falling tends to lead to a decline in activity.
As you can imagine, this can create quite a downward spiral, as a decline in activity tends to lead to decreased balance and strength, making it easier to fall again and compounding the already existing fear of falling.
And this is only the beginning!
Take an even longer view, and now you’re dealing with things like depression and anxiety, particularly if you’re no longer able to do activities you love (such as going out with friends, visiting with family, and playing with grandkids. Or for the more active people, activities like hiking and gardening.)
That’s quite a gloomy picture isn’t it?
Luckily, I have some good news: by and large, most people with poor balance and a history of falls can get better!
It’s not always a quick process, but it’s usually worth the time and effort.
And there’s no better way to get started on the road to better balance and a more active lifestyle than by understanding the factors that are affecting your balance.
With that in mind, let’s look at the 3 balance systems we all have and how they work together. If you’d prefer the video version of these 3 systems, just scroll to the bottom 🙂
The 3 Balance Systems
->> Vision: when you have your eyes open, your vision is constantly giving your brain feedback about where you are in relationship to your surroundings. So when you move your head to the left, everything in your field of vision moves to the right. This is a very powerful feedback system, and it also works very quickly to give your brain instant information.
->> Sensation/Body Awareness: if you have normal sensation in your feet, you should be able to feel the weight of your body when you stand. When you shift your weight from side-to-side, that sensation of pressure also gives your brain information about where your center of gravity lies in relationship to your feet. In addition, you also have sensation throughout your joints and muscles that give your brain even more information about where your body is positioned.
->> Vestibular System (aka inner ear): do you remember spinning around really fast when you were a kid, and then when you stopped the room would keep spinning? That’s your vestibular system! To oversimplify, your inner ear has fluid inside it that moves through hoop-like canals, and when you move your head, the fluid moves in the canals. This information is again communicated to your brain and gives you a sense of where your head is in relation to gravity. While there’s a lot more to the vestibular system than just the fluid moving in the canals, this is a good starting point for most people.
Other Factors that Affect Your Balance
Now that you have a basic understanding of the 3 balance systems, let’s also look at a few more factors that might affect your balance…
While we don’t consider these factors “balance systems”, they can also affect how well you can move and maintain your balance.
->> Strength: it should make sense that having strong muscles in your legs and core will help you maintain your balance, while having weak muscles will generally decrease your balance. This is especially true in the ankle, hip and core muscles, as these msucles are the most involved in helping you correct your balance as you move.
->> Flexibility: tightness in your ankles, knee and hips/trunk can also adversely affect your balance.
->> Endurance: similar to the idea of strength, having some level of endurance is very important for maintaining balance, especially during most demanding activities. As your muscles become tired, their ability to help maintain and correct your balance diminishes.
That information should give you a pretty solid overview of how your body is able to maintain ideal balance, and I think you can imagine that deficits in any one area (or multiple) can potentially throw the whole system out of whack.
For example, if you already have some issues with sensation in your feet (system #2), and you haven’t been very active, so your vestibular system isn’t very sharp (system #3) and you’re now developing weakness in your muscles, can you see how those factors will place you at greater risk for a fall?
Then lets say you find yourself in a dark room or trying to walk to your car at night, which means you can’t rely as heavily on your vision (system #1). Can you see how you’re now at an even higher risk for a fall?
It’s not always that fun to think about, but like I said the good news is that there’s hope for nearly everyone with poor balance.
If you or a loved one have had a recent fall and are now worried about enjoying day-to-day activities due to the fear of falling, I have even more good news:
We’re hosting a “Balance & Fall Prevention” workshop at the clinic on Saturday, February 11th at 10 a.m. (2017)
During this FREE workshop, we’ll be covering all of the balance systems in more detail, simple ways to test each system, and ways you can reduce your fall risk immediately.
So if you’d like to attend, please call us immediately at 509.892.5442 to reserve your seat!
We’re limiting the event to the first 15 people who register, so don’t delay!
Have a wonderful day,
-Luke Gordon, DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy/Owner of Gordon Physical Therapy)
Here’s the video version of this blog post 🙂