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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


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.

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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