The human body’s ability to maintain balance is remarkable. Balance is the ability to stay upright and steady.  For us to maintain normal balance, several muscles and symptoms in the body must work together. However, unless we lose that ability, most of us take it for granted. 

Balance problems can make you feel dizzy, unsteady, and lightheaded. If you have a balance problem, you may be afraid of doing even your routine daily activities. Even the simplest tasks may be exhausting. You may lose strength or become isolated or depressed. If your balance is abnormal, you may have an abnormal walking pattern resulting in a fall and possible injury. You may feel as if the room is spinning around you or as if you are about to fall over. Your brain coordinates signals to your vision, muscles, joints, vision, and more. But many conditions, such as neurological problems, vestibular disorders, orthopedic injuries, or side effects from medications, may cause these signals to go awry. Loss of strength and flexibility, whether from disease, aging, or a sedentary lifestyle, can also lead to a deterioration in balance.

How does anatomy affect balance?

The muscular system of the legs and feet support, balance, and move the body. Whether the body is at rest or in motion, these muscles are constantly adjusting to maintain balance.

  • The quads are the muscles across the front of the thigh. They help flex the leg forward and straighten the knee.
  • The hamstrings are in the back of the thigh. Their job is the opposite of that of the quads. They bend the leg backward and bend the knee.
  • The gluteus muscles are located in the back and side of the hips. They are responsible for extending the leg backward, moving the leg away from the center of the body (abduction), and rotating the leg outwards (external rotation).
  • Your calves contain two different muscles: the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle, and the soleus is the smaller, flat muscle behind it. They have distinct functions, but both contribute to plantar flexion (pointing your toe) and are essential to walking, running, and keeping balance.
  • Dorsiflexion is the backward bending and contracting of your foot or hand. Limitations in ankle dorsiflexion have been associated with balance dysfunction.

How do we keep our balance?

A properly functioning balance system allows us to stay oriented, control our movements, see clearly, and make automatic adjustments to maintain posture and stability in various situations.

  • Nerves serve as the connection between the brain and the rest of the body. The nerves may become less sensitive over time, due to age, disorders, or traumatic injuries. Peripheral neuropathy refers to damage to the nerves outside the brain and spinal cord.  These nerves send messages from the central nervous system, the brain, and the spinal cord to the rest of the body.
  • Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense its location, movements, and actions. It’s the reason we’re able to move about freely, for example, walking without looking at our feet.  Receptors in the muscles, joints, ligaments, and skin receive information indicating the body’s position and movements. This information is sent to the brain, which uses it to make necessary adjustments.
  • Semicircular canals are fluid-filled channels in the inner ear. They help the brain with orientation and balance.
  • Vision helps us adjust our body’s position, which helps us avoid obstacles in our path.  For example, the proprioceptive system depends on the information the eyes and brain give them, helping with stability and position, whether standing still or in motion. 

Therefore, you need sensory input, motor control, and muscle power to maintain stability. Illness, neurological disorders such as vertigo or developmental coordination disorder (DCD), medications, and advancing age can affect all the systems involved in balance.

How can we improve our balance?

Statistics show that more than one out of four older people fall each year, and every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall. Injuries resulting from a fall are the sixth leading cause of death in the elderly. Although older people often experience balance problems, loss of balance is not an inevitable result of aging. Research shows that people of all ages can improve their balance with exercise. By challenging the body’s muscles, improving circulation, and creating new connections in the brain, you can change the way your body functions and improve your balance.  Overall, exercise programs “reduced falls that caused injuries by 37%, falls leading to serious injuries by 43%, and broken bones by 61%.” Experts say that exercise can train, or retrain, the body’s sense of its position in space. Best of all, you can do balance exercises anytime or anywhere. 

Good balance affects everything you do, even simple acts such as walking or tying your shoes. If you or someone you know is suffering and in need of physical therapy for a balance disorder, contact Cawley Physical Therapy & Rehab at 570-208-2787.