How Do We Balance? How Does This System Work?
Balancing our bodies against the never-ending pull of gravity is a complex system of three different processes. We combine all three systems to coordinate our movement so we can enjoy life to the fullest. Struggling with balance and stability issues interrupts our ability to safely move, play, and work. The balance system includes three systems: Vision, Somatosensory, and Vestibular.
The Eyes and Visual System
Our eyes help us to see what is around us. It can warn us of potential tripping hazards, such as a bunched-up rug or a hole in the ground. We can also get information from other objects to compare with our position in space, this helps us to determine if we are straight and upright or tipping over in some way. Vision helps us to see changes in elevation either up or down, left or right. We see hills, curbs, ramps, stairs, etc.
Our visual system can also give us incorrect information. Have you every walked in a funhouse? Visual distortions make you feel as if you are walking sideways when you are truly staying upright. We can also be tricked into feeling like we are moving. Have you ever been sitting in a stopped car when an adjacent car moves next to you? When we are in a darkened room, our vision is not as sophisticated. The light coming into our eyes is much lower and our visual system is not as accurate. We then need to rely on our other systems to combat against these areas of difficulty.
The Somatosensory System
Our Somatosensory System is the information our muscles and joints give us about the position and actions of our body. This sense is divided into 2 subcategories:
- Proprioception – the ability to know where your joints are in space at rest
- Kinesthesia – the ability to sense joint movement
We are most sensitive in our feet and ankles. The most sensitive part of our feet is our biggest toe. For instance, if you are walking on a sidewalk that has a crack under your foot, this system makes immediate adjustments to your joints and muscles to move your body into a position to keep you from falling when your ankle rolls a little. It is a split-second decision that you do not consciously control but that your brain and body coordinates automatically.
Problems in this area usually stem from loss of sensation in the feet, as with neuropathy or nerve damage from surgeries. People who have lost their biggest toe in an accident or from infections have a great deal of difficulty with balance from this system. In these cases, the visual and vestibular systems take over.
The Vestibular System
Our vestibular system is found in the semi-circular canals of your inner ear. You have very small calcium stones in these canals that move through fluid as your head moves, much like a level is used in construction. These stones sense gravity and movement, giving you information about how to move your body to stay upright.
Ear infections can cause swelling in the same area and cause a disruption in this system. The stones can also get stuck if you move your head around too fast or hit your head too hard. If they get stuck, you will feel very dizzy. Your physical therapist is skilled at the maneuvers that help to get them dislodged and moving correctly again. This process is easy and quick and quite successful in reducing your feelings of dizziness or vertigo.
Putting It All Together
Our brains are amazing!! The brain takes all the information from these three systems and puts the whole story together to help us use our muscles, joints, arms, legs, body, and head in a coordinated manner to do the things we enjoy in play and need to accomplish in our daily lives. When one system is not working, the other two systems take over and work harder to continue to support our efforts to move through our lives.
If you should find yourself having difficulty with your balance, your physical therapist can help you to determine which system or systems are affected. All of the physical therapists at Specialized Physical Therapy have advanced certifications and some of the most experienced therapists in the region. We are here to get you back on your feet and back to your life!! Give us a call at (402)-939-7939.