Your ability to balance when you stand on both feet comes from an amazing orchestration of many integrated body systems. Interruption or challenges to any one of these systems can make keeping your balance difficult.
Let’s look at some ways your body gathers information to help you balance, and what you can do when things go wrong.
Balance is primarily controlled by your inner ear. Signals from the inner ear are deciphered in your brain, which tells your leg and arm muscles to contract, keeping you upright. The brain also gets information from movement and position receptors in your lower legs. The receptors inform your brain as to the positions of your foot, ankle and knee, etc., and the type of surface you are standing on. For example, if you are on a hill or rocky or slippery surface, receptors send different information than if you are on a flat, solid surface.
Your eyes also provide a rich source of information to help you balance. While most people without balance issues can usually stand on one foot for 5-10 seconds, standing on one foot with your eyes closed is much more challenging. Eliminating visual input forces your body to rely on the movement and position receptors and inner ear for feedback. The resulting compensatory movements keeping you balanced are usually much more exaggerated. You might tilt, lurch, swivel or bend as you try to stay upright and balanced.
When any one of these systems malfunctions, unsteadiness results.
The most serious challenge to balance occurs when a problem directly affects the inner ear or the part of the brain that controls balance. Diagnosis and treatment often include medications and some form of physical therapy. Safety and fall prevention are a major goal of any treatment plan. Physical therapy is often very successful in improving balancing and function.
If you or a loved one is experiencing some balance difficulty or unsteadiness, one simple test can show whether there is a serious risk of falling: Sit in a chair with arm rests; fix on a point 10 feet from the chair and mark it; time how long it takes to get up from the chair and walk to the mark 10 feet away and to turn around and walk back to the chair and sit down. If it takes longer than 14 seconds to accomplish this task, there is a serious risk of falling.
In dealing with problems of the movement and position receptors several factors come into play. Injuries to the foot, ankle or knee can skew the receptors and reduce the information that is gathered. Diseases like diabetes, or injuries to the back and legs, can cause nerve damage preventing transmission of the information. Imbalances in the alignment of the back, hips, knees or feet can also interfere with your sense of balance. For example, someone who has taken a bad fall and twisted the spine or ankle may have a much harder time balancing if there are residual asymmetries. Treatment of these imbalances often leads to a significant improvement in balance.
In general, balance issues respond to a well-rounded treatment plan based on a thorough assessment of all the systems involved.
Your body is sturdy and can tolerate impact. But your body is also carefully balanced. When imbalance occurs, your body goes to work to function its best despite the encumbrance. The effort your body makes can result in an additional or worsened condition. One thing can lead to another. So righting an imbalance by treating the truly fundamental cause can make your life easier. Take care of your body so it can take care of you.