Balancing is not a simple task, especially when we make it dynamic (adding movement) versus static. When challenging our balance we are required to use and process information from three complex systems in our body. These include our vestibular system, visual system and proprioception or somatosensory system.
- The vestibular system is located within the inner ear and is responsible for keeping our bodies upright and steady when there is relative movement between us and the surface on which we stand. This change in surface movement or acceleration of our head relative to our surroundings causes movement of fluid in the inner ear which in turn alerts our brain take action in keeping us balanced.
- The visual system allows us to use visual cues from the surrounding environment to orient our bodies appropriately and to anticipate changes in motor function needed as the environment around us changes. For example if we are walking and can see that we are about to climb a small hill, we are prepared to lean forward slightly on the ascent to keep us from falling backward.
- Lastly, proprioception allows us to receive information from sensors in our skin, muscles, tendons, and joints regarding the surface we are standing on. For example, if we rock forward at our ankles and hips as if reaching for a distant object, sensors at these joints will send signals to our brain describing our position. This then allows our brains to create a plan to return us to an upright position or maintain the reaching position without falling. In addition proprioceptors in the feet and ankle will tell our brain how to react when standing on slippery, uneven, soft or firm surfaces.
These three pathways must communicate and agree to control our body in stance. Otherwise, we may feel dizzy, unstable and lose our balance easily. It should be noted that only 2 of the 3 systems must be functioning for a person to remain upright and appear completely normal. This is why people who are blind, have severe neuropathy, or have had inner ear damage can still function relatively normally. However, remove one more system and the person will be unable to balance or walk due to the fact that at least 2 systems must work together to compare information and prevent gravity from winning.
I recently attended the holiday Cirque du Soleil which is what sparked my interest for this blog. Now, I’m not suggesting for everyone to try cartwheels, headstands or other incredibly thrilling and challenging stunts performed by these professionals, but how about spending a little more time standing on one leg?
There are many ways your balance can be challenged to retrain your neuromuscular system. That’s right! These systems can be retrained by use and practice of correct exercises for your needs. Physical Therapists at The Center for Physical Rehabilitation are trained in ways to improve balance for an individual who is recovering from an ankle sprain or joint replacement to an individual who might require balance rehabilitation for Neurological conditions such as a stroke or Parkinson’s Disease. Maybe you are a high level athlete who is lacking the dynamic stability to perform your sport efficiently. Correcting these imbalances can make the difference in your athletic performance and reduce your risk for musculoskeletal injuries.