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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!

 

Falls Among Seniors: What You Should Know

Falls Among Seniors: What You Should Know

— seen against the afternoon sun

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in three adults over the age of 65 has a fall in any given year. Falls are the leading cause of injury-related death for adults in this age range, as well as the most common cause of trauma-related hospital admissions. More than 1.6 million older adults go to the emergency room for fall-related injuries each year in the United States. Whether you are above the age of 65, or you care for someone who is, knowing how to prevent a fall could help you save a life.

There are several risk factors that you can address to help prevent a fall. The first factor is a lack of physical activity. As adults grow older it becomes difficult to exercise on a regular basis. This leads to a decrease in strength and a loss of bone flexibility and mass. All of these factors can make falls more likely and injuries more severe.

Fortunately, there are ways for older adults to stay active. Regular exercise is the best place to start. Fifteen minutes of an exercise designed to increase bone and muscle strength should be done every other day. This can be as simple as taking a walk or going for a swim a few times a week.

The risk of falls increases when seniors do not take adequate time to carry out daily activities. It is important to stay safe and to take your time when bending over and when lifting things. Be sure to recover your balance first before taking a step when getting out of bed or a chair.

Seniors on medications may find that their balance is impaired and their mental alertness is reduced. Some medications can cause a drop in blood pressure while you are standing up, throwing you off balance. Be sure to understand all of the side effects of your medications, and be clear with your doctor about any fears you have about your balance. He or she may be able to reduce your dosage to help keep the side effects under control.

Environmental hazards are one of the biggest risk factors for senior falls. These hazards can include items on the floor that are easy to trip on, loose rugs, unsteady furniture, and poor lighting.

To reduce the risk of environmental factors causing a fall, take time to walk through the house to locate any potential hazards. Rugs can be secured with nonskid tape and throw rugs can be removed altogether. Furniture should be kept in good repair and clutter should be kept to a minimum. Finally, consider having grab bars installed to help you get up and down securely.

Falls among seniors can be frightening, but there are steps that you can take to help prevent them. By being cautious and staying in good health, seniors can increase their chances of avoiding harmful falls.

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