Why Does Balance Go Bad? The 3 Systems That Control Your Balance, and How We Can Test for Them.

Ever wondered what controls your balance?

At Natural Fit Therapy, we consider ourselves balance experts- we’ve worked with hundreds of people to help them regain their confidence and maintain their independence. We’re always for educating you on how your body works, so today we’re going over your three main systems that control your balance…

We have three main systems, four if you count strength, that go into maintaining your balance:

Vision: Your eyes will take in information from the environment and know if you’re moving and will send feedback back to your brain that says you moved. That’s why, when you’re sitting in a car, stopped at a red light and the car next to you rolls forward a little bit, it sometimes feels like you’re moving backwards. That’s that part of your brain that is using vision to determine if you’ve moved or not. It uses the surroundings, and sometimes it doesn’t get it right, but that’s how your brain helps keep you balanced. Have you ever noticed when you close your eyes in the shower, you feel a little bit more unsteady? Or when you’re putting a shirt over your head, you’ve decided you need to start sitting down because, “When that shirt’s over my head, I feel very unsteady.” That is because your vision is being taken out of the equation.

Proprioception or somatosensory system: These are little receptors mainly in your feet and ankles that give feedback to your brain of where your joints actually moved. If I close my eyes and someone moved my hand, I’d be able to say, “Yep, my hand is bent forward. And yep, now it’s bent backwards.” Every joint in your body sends signals to your brain that tells you where you are in space. As you age, just like all the other senses, that starts to slow down a little bit, especially if you have neuropathy or peripheral neuropathy or diabetic neuropathy, that can slow down and so it’s not giving information up to your brain as fast as it can to be able to make the decision to recover from a fall.

Vestibular system: Commonly known as your inner ear system. You have these little fluid filled canals in your inner ear that tell you if your head has moved. That helps with keeping your balance with your head turned, when you look up, it helps your body determine where you are in space. A lot of people will look up and fall backwards and that’s because by the time you realize you’re falling backwards, your brain hasn’t adjusted. Whereas, if a vestibular system is working really fast, by the time you look up, your brain’s already adjusted and you shifted your weight to correct for that. So, what happens is we have people stand with their feet together and then we have them close their eyes to take their eyes out of it. Most people can do that pretty well, just taking their eyes away. If your balance is really bad, taking your eyes away, that will cause a problem, so don’t do this on your own. Make sure you’re with someone that can help you or come in to see us and get your balance tested. What we then do is we have you stand on a foam mat, a foam mat, and because it’s squishy, it confuses your feet and ankles and messes up that information that it sends to your brain. Normally your feet and ankles are used to a flat, solid surface and that’s what it gives the information based on the flat surface. If the surface underneath you is moving, you can’t rely on the information that’s sent to you from your feet and ankles, so we take that out. Then we have you on the mat and close your eyes. Now, we’re testing just your equilibrium, and older adults should be able to stand with their feet together on a foam mat for 30 seconds without falling over. It is amazing how many people we will put them on that foam mat, they close their eyes, and they look like a tree that just got chopped over and they have no idea that they’re falling over. Some people just wobble a little bit more, but that’s a way that we notice, “Hey, your equilibrium isn’t working that well.” What I hear from everyone is, “Well, I’m never going to stand on that stupid foam and I’m never going to close my eyes, so what do I need to worry about it for?” And I say, “Well, it’s a test, right?”

The analogy I use…

Say you had three guys, we’ll say my size, and an old VW bug. If I was on a flat paved surface, could me and two other guys get that bug rolling pretty good if it ran out of gas and we couldn’t get it to the gas station? Three of us could get it going, right? Once we get it going, even though those two other guys were pushing, do you think I could back off and just pretend like I’m pushing and the other two guys keep pushing it? I think two guys could still be able to push a little VW bug, right? And I could just pretend like I’m pushing, right? And those two guys could go along. But what happens if it gets to a hill? I better start pushing, otherwise we’re going to start rolling backwards.

Well, that’s the same thing I say during day-today life; you can get by with your vision compensating for your equilibrium not working as well, but what happens when you catch your toe on the rug that you didn’t listen to Ryan about and didn’t remove? What happens when you slip on the piece of ice that fell out of the ice machine that now you didn’t realize there’s a small puddle on the ground? What happens when you’re in a busy mall and someone bumps you, or what happens when you turn your head real quickly to check out the loud noise that you heard and it throws you off balance? How quickly you can make that reaction, makes a big difference of whether you will catch yourself or not. And so, I say that because again, if the blood pressure’s a little high, we need to start making changes to bring that back down. If your vestibular system isn’t working, let’s catch it before it becomes a big issue.

If you’re struggling with your balance and wanting to get help, call our clinic at 512-730-0231.

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