Active Seniors

Balancing the Body’s Balance Mechanisms

What is balance?

Balance is your body’s ability to recover and right yourself. Balance might have a different meaning to each individual. For some, it simply means not to fall. For others, it takes on even weight distribution, postural control, and stability. No matter what balance may mean to you, the mechanism of balance in the body is similar for each of us.

It may not be obvious when we use balance – a lot of people think that standing on one leg is the only form of balance, however, think about your daily activities. Walking, climbing up or down stairs, walking on slippery ground, and even chasing grandkids! These all involve balance.

The mechanisms of balance

Good balance definitely involves practice and challenging yourself, but did you know there are three main mechanisms of balance in each of us? These are:

  • Sight – the visual system
  • Ears – the vestibular system
  • Muscles/skin/joints – the proprioceptive system

Each of these mechanisms of balance work together in a wonderful equilibrium to ensure we have the best balance possible and avoid falls!

Visual system

In our eyes, we have receptors called rods and cones. Rods detect movement, while cones detect colour. These rods and cones help paint a picture about where we are in space and help determine any objects near us, as well as their height/depth/sharpness etc. We use our eyes the most for balance – have you ever tried balancing with your eyes closed? Not easy!

Vestibular system

This system involves the inner ear. Within your inner ear, you have 2 main components.

  • 3 semicircular canals – detecting movements such as nodding and rotating of the head
  • 2 otolith organs – detecting movements such as up and down, front and back

These organs detect where your head is in space – think about if you lay down and suddenly felt dizzy. Your vestibular system will be working overtime to right the change in your posture with regard to gravity!

Proprioceptive system

This system involves your skin, muscles, and joints. The receptors in each of these organs will detect your movements and relay information back to each other and the brain to decide what to do. As we age, we often experience an interruption to one or more of these systems. Have a think about what an ‘interruption’ may mean…

Changes to the visual system

Conditions such as cataract issues and macular degeneration can impact our visual system and therefore impact our balance. Macular degeneration involves degradation of the macular in the back of your eye, which can lead to disrupted messages from the optic nerve to the brain. Foggy lenses from cataracts can interrupt the image coming through to the rods and cones. These conditions – among others – make it hard for the visual system to tell the brain about an individual’s environment, resulting in trip hazards.

Changes to the vestibular system

Changes to the vestibular system (inner ear) can also affect our balance. As we age, we lose nerve cells from within the inner ear. Additionally, some conditions such as vertigo, Meniere’s Disease and vestibular neuritis can affect the messages being sent from the inner ear to the brain, making it hard for the ear to figure out where we are in space.

Changes to the proprioceptive system

Changes to the vestibular system tend to be musculoskeletal or neuromuscular in nature e.g. arthritis, changes due to poor posture, muscle wastage, Parkinson’s Disease or Multiple Sclerosis. Compensations in our joint and muscle structure and strength can mean our muscles don’t relay messages to the brain and respond as quickly as they should.

Here’s one for you to think about – as we get older, many people get joint replacements. Considering our natural joints have nerves in them sending messages to the brain, replacing them with metal can have an impact on those messages! Other examples include chemotherapy and diabetes, which can affect nerves in the feet, and some medications.

So, what can we do to help?

Strength training: training our muscles to be stronger is an excellent way to make sure the proprioceptive system stays healthy and reduce our falls risk. Some good exercises to do at home include sit to stands, calf raises, glute bridges and planks. Strength training will also help with posture.

Mobility training: This involves flexibility through the joints and is important for messages to be relayed from the brain to help with balance. Stiffness through the joints can be hard for balance as it will impact your ability to recover yourself! Good at home stretches include hip mobility work, calf stretches, lower back rotations and spine movements such as cat/cow.

PRACTICE: make sure you are in a safe space and practice your balance! ‘Embrace the wobble’ – if you are wobbling while balancing, that is a good thing! It means your joints and muscles are adapting to the new movement and sending muscles to the brain, teaching it new things!

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