|Balance is a term with many meanings: It's an instrument to measure weight, a means of judging or deciding, the equality between the totals of two sides of an account, or, in metaphysics, “a point between two opposite forces that is desirable over purely one state or the other”. But balance in the sense that chiropractors or other health and fitness professionals care about is the body's ability to maintain its center of gravity —as in “keeping one's balance”. And we care about this sort of thing because balance has such wide-ranging influence on how we function.
Our sense of balance comes from many different systems in the body including organs and receptors. Our inner ear, for example, plays a huge role in our equilibrium—that is, our ability to keep from falling over while standing or walking. Disruption to this organ can lead to dizziness, disorientation, and nausea. Anybody who has ever had severely stuffed sinuses or a bad ear infection knows exactly what I'm talking about.
Balance also comes from our sense of sight, as anyone who has ever tried to navigate unfamiliar surroundings in the dark (finding the bathroom in the middle of the night, for instance) can attest to. Then there's our sense of touch—known as our somatosensory system and includes shape, softness, texture and vibration—which also plays an integral part in balance. And, of course, we can't forget our muscles, which are the active movers and anchors that keep us upright and balanced.
The balance sense that I, as a chiropractor, am most interested in, though, is the proprioceptive sense. Proprioception is our ability to discern our body's position at all times; it literally means sense of self . It's the ability to know which way is up. It's the reason we know where our feet are when we walk, drive, dance or play sports. It's the sense that keeps all our muscles working together in a coordinated fashion. Proprioception is our mechanical sense of balance.
We are provided our proprioceptive sense through receptors. Thousands of proprioceptive receptors reside in the soles of our feet. Damage to these receptors lead to walking difficulties. That's why long-term diabetics slap their feet when they walk, because they can't quite sense the ground beneath them, so they slap for feeling. This is the extreme example of a damaged proprioceptive response. We also have receptors in our muscles and tendons—muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTOs). Muscle spindles give us information regarding changes in muscle length and Golgi tendon organs tell us about changes in muscle tension. Both receptors are important in regulating our proprioception.
Balance is a skill that needs to be preserved and maintained in the same way that strength, flexibility or endurance does. When we are active—playing sports, dancing, enjoying recreational activities—we often challenge our balance sense; so in that way, we stay conditioned. But as we reduce our activity levels (unfortunately as we age, but not necessarily because we age) our proprioception stops getting the challenges it needs, and over time, our balance suffers.
Well, so what? What if balance suffers a bit? Isn't that what walkers are for? First off, loss of balance is a serious health issue. The federal government has reported 19,000 deaths from fall-caused injuries in 2005 alone (the latest year they have statistics for), with 75% of them in people aged 65 or older. When people fall—especially osteoporotic women—hip fractures are common. When hips fracture they can lead to severed arteries, specifically the femoral artery, and this can lead to death. And non-fatal falls put half a million people in the hospital and lead to two million emergency room visits every year. It's no joke.
This issue has become such a big public health concern that the government has put out guidelines to help seniors prevent falls, and watch for warning signs that might be good indicators that a fall is coming. According to the guidelines, one in three elderly people fall each year, and they say that 55% of people who have fallen once will fall again. Those at the highest risk for falling are people with balance and gait problems, Parkinson's disease or a history of stroke, impaired vision, or who use certain medications.
For people who have suffered a fall, there is a phenomenal way to regain one's balance. It's the same process that's used to rehabilitate athletes, and one which I incorporate into my own Los Angeles, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills rehab practice—it's called wobble or rocker board training. In wobble or rocker board training, we put patients on an unstable surface and challenge them with various activities, like playing catch, which further disrupts their balance. As they struggle and fight to maintain their balance, their proprioceptive receptors fire like crazy, ultimately reconditioning them and a return to balance is not far off.
Not only can balance training help people recover from a fall, give the patient confidence, and help them prevent falling again in the future, it also does wonders to help people resolve chronic low back pain. What? You heard me right. Balance training is an incredible conditioning exercise to help ease and prevent low back pain. Often, low back pain is exacerbated by weak muscles of the core and pelvis. By activating and conditioning the proprioceptive system, the abdominal core and the pelvic and legs muscles develop proper tone and reflex, and this combination has an astounding effect on low back biomechanics—and it leads to a strong, healthy low back.
So there you have it: If you have been injured in an auto accident, suffered a sports injury, lost your balance and had a fall, or just have chronic low back pain, you'd be wise to seek out a chiropractic office that does wobble or rocker board balance training. By working on your balance, and getting it up to par, not only will you prevent loss of balance and falls in your future, but you'll improve athletic performance, improve your posture, and even get rid of that nagging back ache that's been with you for so long. Simply put, you can't get more balanced than that.
- February 26, 2008
The Six Keys to Optimal Health by Dr. Nicolas Campos
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