Balance might not be a high priority for a tightrope walker, but for most of us, it’s really not something we think about.
Balance requires your brain to have an accurate and immediate sense of where your muscles, joints, trunk, head and limbs are positioned in space and to be able to control and keep them steady. Good balance often translates to a healthy spine and nervous system. If you have poor balance then your motor control is weak, predisposing you to various spinal and musculoskeletal problems. The poorly functioning nervous system associated with poor balance may also translate to other problems such as learning difficulties.
Perhaps the most important effects of balance problems are seen as we age. In older people, poor balance significantly increases the risk of falling. As osteoporosis is common in the older age group, a fall may result in broken bones. Hip fracture is particularly devastating in the 70 age group. One in four will die from complications within a year while half may no longer manage at home.
One of the main organs responsible for balance is the vestibular system in the inner ear. This is made up of three semicircular canals and two small otolithic organs called the saccule and utricle. The canals and otoliths are like small containers filled with fluid and lined on the inside with tiny hair cells. As we move, fluid flows over the hair cells stimulating the nerve endings. The brain recognises the direction of the movement based on which nerves are stimulated.
Another anatomical structure important for balance is the cerebellum. This is a cauliflower-like structure that sits at the base of the brain. The cerebellum receives nerve information from the muscle and joints of the body (especially the spine) and also from other parts of the brain. The cerebellum helps with muscle co-ordination and is very sensitive to alcohol - which is why a drunken person will have problems trying to walk straight.
Testing your balance
If walking is not a problem for you, try these challenge tests. Be careful to perform these in a safe environment and only progress to the next level if you can easily perform the previous one.
- Stand with your feet together and eyes open.
- Stand on one leg with eyes open.
- Stand with your feet together and eyes closed.
- Stand on one leg with eyes closed.
As a guide, a 60-year-old should be able to stand with minimal wobble on one leg for 10 seconds. If you are concerned about your balance, be sure to discuss this with your chiropractor. A variety of techniques and exercises may be required to improve your balance.
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