Have you ever lost your footing on stairs, wet/icy pavement, or the floor of your own bedroom as you get up at night—causing you to fling your arms out to try and catch yourself before landing and raising your heart beat to cope with the suddenly stressful situation? Nearly everyone, regardless of age, has experienced these scenarios, probably multiple times in their lives. Everyone takes their sense of balance for granted because this sense seems to be automatic, until they are in danger of losing their balance.
Two years ago, at age 53, I slipped on my wet kitchen floor, twisting my leg behind me and landing hard on my back and my knee. My husband had to help me up from the floor, walk me to the couch where I laid down for 20 minutes to recover from the shock. My knee pain persisted for 3 months.
My 20-year-old son typically leaps and bounds up and down the stairs. Last year, he missed a step and slid down on his back. Within seconds, he was up and moving about as if nothing had happened.
Ed, an 89-year-old man, walks with a cane and tripped over a rug. He landed on his side and bruised his leg. Luckily, he didn’t break anything, but he now has to use a walker.
Falling can happen to anyone at any age, but the older we get, the greater the possibility of falling and getting a serious injury. Older folks simply cannot bounce back from a fall like my 20-year-old son did.
What is Balance?
Every day, your sense of body balance, known as proprioception, does a good job of automatically helping you lead a normal life: getting up from chairs or from lying down on the sofa/bed, walking past obstacles in your way, bending down to pick something up from the floor, navigating uneven terrain outside in the garden, just to name a few instances of your balance at work. Your balance is achieved through the integration of multiple bodily systems: visual, vestibular, nervous, and musculoskeletal.
- Visual System: Your eyes provide information about the environment and location in the space around you so you can see and prepare for dangers, obstacles and changes. This is why it can be difficult to keep your balance in the dark.
- Vestibular System (inner ear): Your inner ears provide information about the current position of your head at rest and its movement in space as you move. This system may be affected if you feel off balance when standing up or walking as well as when your inner ear is overwhelmed from too many rapid changes in position (e.g., riding a rollercoaster), causing you to feel nauseous, dizzy or to have vertigo.
- Nervous system: Proprioception is a built-in mechanism that provides your nervous system with the information to know where your body, arms and legs are in space by sensing pressure changes in your joints. This is why when you close your eyes and then lift your arm and wave it above your head, for example, you automatically know where your arm is in space above you.
- Musculoskeletal: Your muscles and joints provide you with support in order to move around efficiently.
So, how do you know if you have balance issues?
There are a couple of simple tests you can do to determine if your balance is in good condition or if it needs improvement. These tests can also be used as exercises to improve your balance, prevent falls, and improve independent living when practiced regularly at any age.
Check out my free eBook, Better Balance and Fall Prevention Guide to learn how to do these tests on yourself at home.