The ability to maintain our balance is linked to multiple processes in our body, including muscles and joints, vision, and our inner ear. As we age, there are changes in all of these systems that result in a loss of steadiness and an increased risk of falling. If you’ve ever experienced dizziness or unsteadiness while walking, going up and down stairs, or getting up out of a chair, balance treatment with a physical therapist can help. Falling is not inevitable as we age. With training, your balance can improve.
Where are my balance problems coming from?
Balance is a result of the interaction of three separate systems in the body:
• The Visual System, which helps us see things in the environment and orients us to the hazards and opportunities presented.
• The Vestibular System (the inner ear), which provides the brain with information about the position and motion of the head in relation to gravity.
• The Proprioceptors/ Somatosensory Receptors which are located in joints, ligaments, muscles, and the skin to provide information about joint angle, muscle length, and muscle tension, all of which provides information about the position of the limb in space.
The brain needs input from all three systems to distinguish motion of the self from motion of the environment. Any mismatch in these inputs can produce nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Some common examples that we all experience include: The sense of perceived motion when sitting in a car at a stoplight and the car next to you creeps forward, causing you to slam on your brakes OR when on a boat, proprioceptors perceive a rocking boat under your feet but your eyes see a steady horizon.
More long-term complications with balance can make an affected person feel persistently unsteady or dizzy. In fact, as many as 4 out of 10 Americans will at some point experience an episode of dizziness significant enough to send them to a doctor. These issues can be caused by improper function of the systems mentioned above, health conditions, or as a side effect from some medications. In severe forms, a balance disorder can intensely impact day-to-day activities resulting in an inability to function and cause psychological distress.
When should I seek out balance treatment?
This Single Leg Stance test is a great way to test your balance:
1. Stand near a kitchen counter or a chair in case you need the support.
2. With your arms at your side or hovering over the counter, raise one leg off the floor with your hips bent to 45 degrees and your knee to 90 degrees.
3. Looking straight forward, balance on one leg for 5-10 seconds.
4. Close your eyes and hold for the time below that matches your age (below).
Age 20-49: 24-29 seconds
Age 50-59: 21 seconds
Age 60-69: 10 seconds
Age 70-79: 4 seconds
If you’re unable to complete this test successfully, it’s a good idea to seek out treatment to improve your balance. Alternatively, you can ask yourself the following questions:
Do I ever lose my balance and fall?
Do I feel lightheaded or as if I might faint?
Do I feel unsteady?
Does the room feel as if it is spinning around me?
Do I feel as if I am moving when I know I am stationary?
Is my vision blurred?
Do I ever lose my sense of location?
If the answer is “yes” to any of the questions, it’s a good idea to seek out treatment.
How can physical therapy help to improve my balance?
The first step in treatment is to determine the cause of the balance problem. Physical therapy can then be a useful treatment tool to reeducate the body and develop strategies to restore normal function. Through practice and repetition, the brain will recognize when input is abnormal and respond appropriately. With the help of a physical therapist, a home exercise program can be established and repeated a few times a day to reprogram the brain. A physical therapist can also help identify extrinsic risk factors for falls that can be related to balance disorders and help to develop strategies to create a safer environment. They may also include techniques such as:
• Manual therapy to massage and stretch muscles and joints and improve range of motion.
• Patient education to provide a thorough explanation of diagnosis and treatment.
• Strengthening exercises to improve weak core muscles which contribute to the mobility of the knee, hip, and ankle.
Physical therapists can provide the necessary tools to prevent falls and improve your balance, allowing you to return to your favorite activities pain-free and better than ever! To learn more about balance treatment or to eliminate any current discomfort, book a physical therapy assessment today.
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“My physical therapist quickly got to the root of my problem and began working with me to solve it, improving my balance and strength and ultimately minimizing my pain.”