Many systems of the body work together to maintain balance. The sensory system provides information about the position of the body and information about the environment. The brain interprets the information and sends signals to the muscular system to respond with the appropriate movements to maintain balance and avoid falling.
The senses involved in balance include:
Vision provides information about the body’s relationship to other objects, information about surfaces that are encountered and obstacles to avoid. Changes in vision due to medical conditions or age can have a significant impact on the information provided by the visual system and at times increase the risk of falling.
There are sensors within the muscular system that respond to signals inside and outside of the body. This system is called the somatosensory system. These sensors provide information about the surface encountered and the position of the body. Medical conditions that affect these sensors such as neuropathy (numbness in the feet) will interfere with their effectiveness and limit the body’s ability to respond appropriately to maintain balance.
The vestibular system, which includes the balance mechanism in the inner ear, is especially important when the other two systems are not working properly. This system provides information about movements of the body and is activated when the head is moved. Medical conditions that affect the inner ear such as vertigo create a feeling of dizziness and increase the risk of falling.
The brain must clearly interpret the information that comes from the sensory systems to efficiently control the movements of the muscles. Neurological conditions that affect the brain can interfere with these signals resulting in the inability of the muscular system to maintain balance.
Maintaining balance requires a certain amount of muscular strength and flexibility. Lack of strength and flexibility due to a sedentary lifestyle or medical conditions can limit the ability of the body to maintain balance.
This is part 2 of a 3-part series on balance and fall prevention. Kimberly Huff is the Fitness Director at Heron Point of Chestertown, an Acts Retirement-Life Community.