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Where Does Good Balance and Coordination Come From? Introduction to Your Proprioceptive System

Where Does Good Balance and Coordination Come From? Introduction to Your Proprioceptive System

balancing-on-fence

Proprioception is a complex system of anatomical checks and balances, neural impulses, and brain functions that controls our sense of balance, coordination, and agility. Put most simply, proprioception is the “sixth sense” that enables you to scratch your head without looking in a mirror or climb a flight of stairs without having to look at each step.

Most of us are so accustomed to proprioception that we take it for granted. Its development starts soon after we are born and is observed in infants as soon as they gain control of their neck muscles. When the infant’s body tilts in any direction, its head also tilts in the opposite direction to level its eyes with the horizon. This “righting reflex” is the beginning of our sense of balance.

More technically, proprioception is your body’s ability to transmit a sense of its position in space, analyze that information, and react—either consciously or unconsciously—to stimuli with the proper movement and force. Proprioceptors are a specialized type of motor and sensory nerve that transmits impulses to the central nervous system (in particular, the area of the brain known as the cerebellum) from stimuli felt by the muscles, tendons, joints, and skin. The impulses transmitted by proprioceptors contain vital information, such as the amount of tension in a particular muscle and the relative position of a body part when it is moving.

, Proprioception is what enables you to reach for a glass and actually find it in space. It is also what allows you to pick up the glass with just the right amount of force, neither dropping it nor breaking it by squeezing too hard. Proprioception is what enables you to keep your balance when walking on uneven surfaces or when riding a bicycle. The impulses from proprioception combine with input received from the vestibular system (the fluid-filled network in the inner ear that enables us to feel the pull of gravity and know which direction is “up”) and with input from the visual system to create our sense of balance.

However, just as our eyes become weaker with age, so can the proprioceptive system, leading to a loss of proper balance. This is one of the reasons that falling is the number one cause of hospital admissions for people over 60. Something has gone wrong with the complex processing of information needed to maintain their balance, so older people are more likely to slip and fall on stairs or on slippery sidewalks and injure themselves.

Fortunately, you can strengthen your proprioceptive system by practicing simple balance exercises, thus keeping keep your sense of balance from weakening as you grow older. There are many forms of inexpensive exercise equipment (such as BOSU or Bongo Boards) that enable you to stand on a platform that is designed to be wobbly. This instability forces your muscles and your proprioceptive system to work more, and thus become stronger. So if you are over the age of 50, you should consider speaking to your chiropractor about exercises to improve your proprioception. They are very simple but can greatly improve your overall sense of balance, therefore significantly reducing your risk of injury from falls as you grow older. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Oblander, call 406-652-3553.

The New Science of Slips and Falls: What the Research Tells Us

The New Science of Slips and Falls: What the Research Tells Us

While we’ve all seen the old banana peel skit, slips and trips in the real world are no laughing matter. Simply falling to the floor or pavement from an upright position causes a great many serious injuries—and even deaths—each year. No one really knows for certain how many falls could actually be prevented, but the topic is of growing interest to a wide variety of people, from public health officials, designers, architects and community planners to business owners, workplace supervisors and employees. Senior citizens are perhaps the most at risk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presents several statistics that highlight this point:

  • One out of three older adults (those aged 65 or older) falls each year, but less than half talk to their healthcare providers about it.
  • Twenty to thirty percent of people who fall suffer moderate to severe injuries such as lacerations, hip fractures, or head traumas. These injuries can make it hard to get around or live independently, and increase the risk of early death.
  • Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries. In 2010, about 21,700 older adults died from unintentional fall injuries. Over 95% of hip fractures are caused by falls. In 2010, there were 258,000 hip fractures.
  • Many people who fall, even if they are not injured, develop a fear of falling. This fear may cause them to limit their activities, which leads to reduced mobility and loss of physical fitness, and in turn increases their actual risk of falling.
  • In 2010, 2.3 million nonfatal fall injuries among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 662,000 of these patients were hospitalized. In 2010, the direct medical cost of falls, adjusted for inflation, was $30 billion.

Walking is a very complex activity, and science has only recently begun to understand the biomechanics involved. Shirley Wang wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Scientists are finding that maintaining stability and balance with each step we take requires complex coordination of foot placement, arm movement, trunk angle and neck and head motion.” At the same time, researchers are also learning how other factors like sloping, uneven or slippery surfaces and obstructions come into play. There are many variables to consider. Even when the body’s movements are perfectly coordinated, small things about environment can still foil our best efforts to remain upright.

We know from nervous system studies that the body is capable of reacting within milliseconds. Science has shown that a person’s balance is maintained by simultaneous feedback from the body’s visual system, proprioceptive system and inner ear. If one of these systems becomes less efficient or fails altogether, then the other two can usually compensate to keep us balanced. If two fail, then balance becomes far more difficult. Aging frequently leads to poorer eyesight and troubles with the inner ear, so it’s small wonder that seniors are more likely to fall.

Canadian researchers at Simon Fraser University used video cameras in a long-term care facility to see if seniors were right about “tripping” or “slipping” being the reasons for their falls. What they found was surprising. Tripping actually accounted for only 20% of events. The nearly 3-year study of 227 falls involving 130 people showed that the single largest cause (41%) was from improper weight shifting, such as leaning over too far. This seems to indicate a failure in the seniors’ proprioceptive system.

There are a few ways you can help to prevent slips and falls. Be sure to keep walkways clear of clutter, and consider adding non-skid material to flooring—especially to floors that are more likely to become wet. Maintaining your strength helps too. Upper body strength is particularly important for catching yourself before or during a fall. Even when there’s nothing to grab onto, having the sort of upper body strength that helps you to do push-ups can soften the blow to more sensitive parts of the body. Reaching out with hands and flexing elbows upon impact can slow the fall or stop it altogether. The late Jack LaLanne, fitness guru, was still doing fingertip pushups at age 93. Don’t say it can’t be done!

Balance requires that every part of the body works well together. Dr. Oblander can help you maintain this balance by ensuring you have a healthy spine and nervous system.  He can also recommend specific exercises that maintain or increase your upper body strength.  So if you or someone you care about is interested in avoiding slips and falls, we can help you take advantage of the latest research!  Just call or visit our office today: 406-652-3553!

 

Spinal Anatomy 101

Spinal Anatomy 101

vertebrae-model-200-300 “Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where you backbone ought to be.”

-Clementine Paddleford, American Writer (1898 – 1967)

It’s no accident that so many philosophers and writers have used the backbone as a metaphor for discipline, force of will or character.  Your spine (or “backbone”) is the primary physical support for your body’s entire frame.  It’s a remarkable piece of natural engineering composed of 33 separate vertebrae that act as a single unit to provide stability as well as flexibility while you’re sitting, standing or in motion.  A healthy spine is both strong and resilient.  With proper nutrition, exercise, postural habits and chiropractic care, it can allow us to lead an active lifestyle well into old age.  However, poor biomechanics, injury and disease can cause problems with the spine that result in misalignment, inflammation, pain and restricted movement.

The spine develops from infancy into adulthood, gradually evolving from a C-shape, which is suitable for crawling, to its distinctive S-shape, which is the appropriate shape for two-legged walking.  The natural curves in the spine serve to cushion impact from movement, absorb shock, preserve balance, and allow range of motion.  The three main curves in the spine are known as the cervical curve (the neck region), the thoracic curve (the upper back) and the lumbar curve (the lower back).

There are 7 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 5 sacral and 4 coccygeal vertebrae.  The sacral and coccygeal vertebrae are those located lowest in the spine, below the area of the lumbar curve.  Twenty-four of the vertebrae in your spine are moveable. They are cushioned by intervertebral discs which act like coiled springs. These discs are fluid filled and—as we age—become thinner and more brittle, often causing us to get shorter.  Over time (or as a result of excessive wear and tear or specific injury), they can degenerate, bulge or herniate, potentially causing significant pain and loss of mobility.

There are several other common spinal disorders.  Lordosis, also known as “sway back,” occurs when there is abnormal forward curvature of the lumbar spine.  Those who have abnormal curvature of the thoracic curve have kyphosis, or “hunchback.”  Scoliosis occurs when there is a side-to-side curvature in the spine. Slight curves of less than 20 degrees do not usually present health or problems and are seldom treated.  Moderate or severe curves usually require treatment because they can interfere with the functioning of internal organs and may significantly limit physical activity.

While the bones and connective tissues of the spine are very good at what they do, they cannot support the body’s weight and facilitate movement on their own.  They need the help of strong core muscles.  Good muscle tone is important to help maintain proper posture and spinal alignment.  This is why it’s so important for us to put effort into maintaining proper posture when we sit, stand, lie, walk and run.  Over time, poor posture can place unnatural stresses on the musculoskeletal system (especially the spine), limiting our range of motion and producing pain.

In addition to its role in supporting the body’s frame and facilitating movement, the spine has another important role as well.  The spine’s bony vertebrae also encase and protect the spinal cord, which is connected directly to the brainstem.  It’s hard to exaggerate how important this protection is.  Damage to the spinal cord can cause numbness and loss of motor function.  Injury to the cervical area can cause tetraplegia (also known as quadriplegia), while injury to the thoracic or lumbar area may result in paraplegia, or loss of the use of the legs and trunk.

This article serves as a brief introduction to just one aspect of your anatomy.  If you are in the Billings area and need a Billings Chiropractor and you have any questions about your spinal health or your musculoskeletal health more generally, please don’t hesitate to call us at Oblander Chiropractic or visit our office (406-652-3553).  We’re here to help!

What Causes Muscle Tension?

What Causes Muscle Tension?

woman-in-pain
woman-in-pain

Muscle tension occurs when a muscle (or group of muscles) remains contracted for an extended period of time. This might be characterized as a low-energy or low-intensity muscle cramp. Such tension in the muscles constricts blood flow, which in turn keeps oxygen and nutrients from reaching the muscle tissues and tendons. Muscle tension also keeps cellular waste from being carried away. The result is more muscle tension, spasms and damage. Why does this happen? There are actually several possible causes.

One key source of muscle tension is stress or anxiety. For our ancient ancestors, stress was a simple fact of everyday life, and their ability to response effectively to imminent threats (predators, hostile neighbors, natural disasters, etc.) was an integral part of their survival. As a result, their bodies evolved a set of short-term physiological changes that helped them to meet sudden life-and-death challenges by increasing their alertness, strength, speed and stamina. Today, we refer to these changes collectively as the “fight-or-flight” response, and they’re part of our evolutionary inheritance.

Unfortunately, there is now a kind of mismatch between the kinds of modern threats (real or perceived) that most of us encounter in our day-to-day lives and our bodies’ primitive fight-or-flight response. Instead of short-term physical dangers, modern stress is much more likely to come from social or financial pressures that are (usually) lower-intensity but more prolonged. Mounting bills, insane work deadlines and relationship problems are all great examples. This is a problem because our fight-or-flight response was really designed to be “switched on” only for very short periods of time—essentially, just as long as it took us to either defend ourselves or escape from a physical attack. It turns out that the human body pays a high price for the fight-or-flight response, and this price is especially high when the response is activated continuously over long periods of time, even at relatively low levels. Chronic muscle tension is just one potential result.

Muscle tension can also be the result of underlying structural problems or injuries affecting the musculoskeletal system, especially in the back or neck. When the spine is misaligned or there is an injury, the body may compensate by activating other muscles or muscle groups to stabilize the area and prevent pain. These muscles are put under additional strain for which they were not designed, leading to chronic muscle tension.

Chronic muscle tension itself can lead to new kinds of discomfort and pain. The pain can lead to an increase in anxiety and more muscle tension. This becomes a vicious cycle—an unhealthy, downward spiral. Luckily, there are a number of different ways to relieve muscle tension.

One of the best ways to relax your muscles is to exercise. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but muscle use increases blood flow and, accordingly, reduces the tension caused directly from lack of such blood flow. Exercise also produces endorphins which help to relieve stress and anxiety.

Heat is another method of relief. It can help by opening up blood vessels and relaxing the tense muscles. Use care when applying a hot pack. With heat, you can do too much of a good thing. Use a cloth between the pack and the skin so the heat remains measured and soothing. If you use an electrical heating pad, do not lie on the pad, but lay the pad on the tense muscles.

Water therapy can also help reduce muscle tension. Floating in a swimming pool or on a waterbed can prove to be extremely therapeutic because of the relaxing nature of wave action on the body.

Of course, a massage therapist is an expert at helping muscles relax. A truly good therapist can adapt his or her technique to your specific situation and will be skilled at gradually building up the intensity of the massage so that you’ll receive all the therapeutic benefit without losing the relaxation benefit.

Remember—it’s important to understand the underlying cause of chronic muscle tension so that it can be addressed in an effective way. Your chiropractor is specially trained to determine if the underlying cause is structural. If it is, he or she may be able to perform adjustments to correct the problem. Depending on your specific situation, your chiropractor may also recommend a treatment plan that includes several of the therapies mentioned above in order to relieve your pain and restore your mobility as quickly as possible.

Use it or Lose it: Five Tips for Maintaining Your Sense of Balance Beyond Middle Age

Use it or Lose it: Five Tips for Maintaining Your Sense of Balance Beyond Middle Age

yoga on the natureIf you are middle-aged (40-60, by some definitions) or older, here’s 15-second self-test for you. Do you often find yourself needing to sit down or steady yourself against a table when putting on your shoes or stepping into pants? Do you increasingly need to use the armrests of your chair to “push off” when getting up? Do you generally hold on to handrails whenever you go up and down stairs? If you stand with your feet close together, do you feel unsteady and unable to balance yourself properly?

If you’ve answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you might want to start giving a little bit of thought to your sense of balance, and how important it is to you. It’s easy to take good balance for granted—most people don’t give it a first or second thought until after they’ve experienced a fall. However, the behaviors we asked about in our self-test are actually “early warning signs” that your sense of balance may be starting to deteriorate. Your balance is controlled by an area of the brain called the cerebellum, which works in coordination with your vestibular (inner ear) system, your visual system (your eyes, and their ability to perceive whether you are standing upright), and your proprioceptive system (your body’s sense of position in space).

All of these systems begin to deteriorate once you pass the age of 40, as do the muscles they control. Worse still, this process of deterioration can become accelerated if you lead a sedentary lifestyle (which growing numbers of Americans do). And although you might not think of balance as a health issue, falling is the leading cause of injury for people over the age of 65. In the U.S., someone from this age group is treated in an emergency room for injuries resulting from a fall every 17 seconds.

So how do you improve your sense of balance, and protect yourself from dangerous falls? Simple—use it! Balance is to some extent a learned skill, so if you practice a few simple exercises that isolate these components of balance, you can actually make your sense of balance better. Experts on aging suggest performing a few exercises to improve your balance each day, starting in middle age, before the systems that control your balance have begun to deteriorate.

For example, just avoiding the use of handrails on stairs or the poles in buses and subway cars forces your body to work harder to maintain its balance, improving reflexes, increasing coordination and strengthening your muscles. Other exercises you can perform include creating an unstable surface at home (such as a board placed on wobbly pillows) and then practicing standing on it with one foot, or improving your coordination by standing on one leg with the opposite arm extended and then swinging the other leg back and forth. Office workers can improve their balance—and get a refreshing break at the same time—by practicing getting up from their chairs ten times in a row without using their hands. Each of these simple movements shifts your center of gravity, causes your muscles to react to changing positions, and improves your balance.

Just walking in a small circle around your living room or your backyard can be good for your balance, because walking along a curve is more difficult than walking in a straight line. When you’re out for a walk, try to choose uneven surfaces rather than smooth pavement because this also exercises the muscles in your back and legs that are essential for good balance. Or place cones or other objects in a line on the floor in front of you and then weave between them while walking. You can strengthen your hips, which are very important for balance, by holding on to a table or a kitchen counter and then swinging one leg forward, to the side, to the back, and then up to your chest with your knee bent. Do this ten times, and then switch to the other leg and repeat. Yoga, Tai Chi, martial arts, and other forms of exercise that emphasize flexibility can also improve your balance.

So if you are concerned about protecting yourself against falls as you age, the important thing to bear in mind is the phrase “use it while you’re young, or you’ll lose it as you age.” The more healthy exercise you get in your 30s and 40s, the more healthy – and safe – you’ll be in your 60s and beyond.

 

Balance, Reflexes and Senior Health

Balance, Reflexes and Senior Health

middle-aged-yoga-woman-200-300It’s sad but true: As we get older, our balance tends to deteriorate and our reflexes tend to slow. When you’re aware that it’s happening, it can be very frustrating. But when you’re not aware of these gradual changes, they can actually be dangerous as well. This is especially true as you exit middle age.

Part of the reason it’s so frustrating to experience a decline in balance and reflexes is that—many times—it feels like there’s not very much we can do about it. And to a certain extent, decline really is almost inevitable. However, there is some good news. Even for middle-aged adults and seniors, there are numerous ways we can help maintain or even improve our sense of balance.

The Relationship Between Balance, Reflexes and Overall Well-Being

By the time we’re in our late 50s or early 60s, many of us will begin to have episodes where we feel dizzy or unsteady, or as if our surroundings are in motion. These feelings are triggered by gradual deterioration in the three major systems that work together to provide our balance and coordination— the visual system, the vestibular (inner ear) system, and the proprioceptive system (the sense of body position in space). A loss of balance makes falling more likely. And since our reflexes are also slowing, it becomes less likely that we will be able to catch ourselves if and when we do fall. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one-third of adults age 65 years and older fall each year. And among older adults, falls are actually the leading cause of injury-related deaths.

But even when they’re not fatal, falls can have serious consequences for an older person’s health and lifestyle. Falls can cause injuries that limit activity or make it more difficult to live independently while recovering. And when recovery is slow or incomplete, a lack of mobility can sometimes result in social isolation and depression. In some circumstances, the psychological effects may be more long-lasting than the physical ones. Fear of another fall and a loss of confidence can discourage seniors from returning to an active life—which actually tends to make balance and reflexes deteriorate faster. Unless something happens to change things, this can be the beginning of a downward spiral.

What Can Be Done?

Chiropractic physicians are specially trained to diagnose and treat conditions related to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems, and have a deep understanding of how these systems change as we age. We can work with you to develop a personalized plan to improve your overall musculoskeletal and nervous system health, including strength, range of motion, stamina, balance, coordination and speed.

Regular chiropractic care and massage therapy can be particularly useful in maintaining flexibility, improving circulation and increasing muscle tone.  Recent studies have identified strong links between the lifestyle habits we practice in young adulthood and middle age and overall health and wellness during our senior years. With this mind, a chiropractor can recommend specific nutritional and exercise strategies that can help in these key areas:

  • Building healthy bone and muscle mass as the foundation for an active lifestyle.
  •  Stimulating and reinforcing neural pathways associated with activities requiring good balance and quick reflexes.
  •  Achieving a healthy weight that reduces unnecessary wear-and-tear on joints.
  • Maintaining good overall cardiovascular fitness

 Exercises to Improve Balance and Reflexes

Fortunately, there is a wide variety of exercises, both physical and mental, that will help improve balance and reflexes. And most of them don’t even require a gym membership or any expensive equipment!  Here are just a few to consider:

  •  Jogging in the woods, where your body will need to react quickly to stimuli in the form of obstacles and uneven terrain. The more often you run in the forest, the quicker your reflexes will get.
  •  Bouncing a rubber ball on the floor, throwing it against a wall, or having a catch with a partner. These activities will all improve anticipation, reaction time, hand-eye coordination and lateral movement.
  •  Kicking a soccer ball back and forth with a partner or against a wall. Moving to the ball builds coordination while stopping it and striking it with either foot requires balance. The more quickly you pass the ball back and forth, the more your reflexes will improve over time.
  •  Practicing an appropriate form of yoga or tai chi can provide a wide range of health benefits, including improved balance and coordination.
  •  Playing some types of video games—especially those with motion controllers—can help improve reflexes as well as peripheral vision.

Remember—use common sense when choosing your activities. Be sure to ask your chiropractor for advice if you have any specific health conditions or if it’s been a while since you participated in any kind of strenuous physical activity.

Maintaining your musculoskeletal and nervous system health is one key to enjoying an active lifestyle at every stage of life.  We can design a program that will help you do that safely. Call or visit our office to learn more!

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