How Does Balance Work Anyway?
Jul 27, 2018
In our work, we encounter balance issues that start at any age. It's no secret that the human body is complicated. Balance is no different. Your brain relies on input from several of your body's systems to map out your position in the world. This helps you stay upright to move about your world.
Your body uses three main systems for this purpose. These systems communicate information with one another through nerves. This gives your brain information about your positioning at all times.
Healthy balance happens on a subconscious level. We shouldn't be aware all this work is going on behind the scenes. The first hint of awareness is a sign of a problem. Balance problems arise when any one of these systems, a combination of them, or the communication between these systems start to malfunction.
Our brain relies on input from our eyes to determine where we're positioned in the world. When your eyes are open, they send information about how your world looks to the brain. Your brain uses this information for motor planning or the process of planning movement.
Your balance is so reliant on your vision that severe vision impairments increase fall risk by up to 50%. As the other balance systems of the body begin to decline, we tend to see greater dependence on vision to maintain balance.
Inner Ear (Vestibular)
The inner ear contains a complex system that reads your body's movement through space. Your brain makes sure this input matches up with what your eyes are seeing and uses it for motor planning.
Every heard of vertigo? Vertigo happens when the inner ear is not working as it was designed. This may be an issue with the inner ear itself or with the communication from the inner ear. The classic symptom that comes to mind is dizziness. For many older adults though, the only symptom might be unsteadiness.
Position Sense (Proprioception)
Our skin and joints have receptors that communicate pressure and position to the brain. This information is used in conjunction with information from the inner ear and the eyes.
The loss of this position sense is a common cause of balance problems. The most common form of dysfunction with this system is neuropathy, a complication of diabetes.
Neuropathy leads to lack of feeling in the feet. If neuropathy progress the person may not even know if their feet are touching the floor when they are walking! In this scenario, we often see the person will start to reach for walls or furniture while walking. This is a signal that their brain is looking for an extra point of contact to gain more information about the environment.
To repeat, these systems don't work alone, but communicate with one another to give your brain a map of your position. Any one system slacking can lead to significant balance issues.
The reasons why someone might have balance difficulty are individualized. This is why it's helpful to see a trained professional for feedback on how you can improve your balance. We find more often than not balance issues can be detected long before falls become a problem. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Prevention is key in managing balance issues. Certain exercises can help prevent your balance from declining before it even becomes a problem.
Exposing yourself to variability with movement is key in challenging balance! You can add a balance challenge to any activity by closing your eyes or standing on a different surface.
Changes within these systems occur with age, and some changes can start happening as early as age 30! So if you think it's too early to start worrying about your balance, think again. On the same note, even if you already have significant balance problems it's never too late to make positive changes!