What is balance?
Balance is the body’s ability to maintain its centre of mass over it’s base of support. It is the ability to keep your body upright over your feet without swaying.
Some of the main sensory pathways that contribute to maintaining balance include:
- The vestibular system
The vestibular system:
The vestibular system is regulated by components of the inner ear. The semi-circular canals within the inner ear detect rotational movements of the head. These canals contain a particular type of fluid that moves as the head rotates. When the fluid moves it stimulates the sensory receptors within the canal. This then sends signals to the brain about the position of your head. If the signals coming from both ears are consistent, the vestibular contribution to balance is successfully maintained.
Eyes have receptors in them called Rods and Cones. When light hits these receptors, signals are sent to the brain to determine your spatial orientation in relation to objects within your visual field.
Proprioception is your body’s ability to know where it is in space. This helps detect its movement without looking at the moving body part. For example, you should know where your feet are positioned in relation to the body, without looking at your feet.
When parts of your body move, particular receptors in muscles and tendons detect an amount of stretching. This correlates with an amount of joint movement which effects balance. Sensation on the soles of your feet also helps your body determine what type of surface its in contact with.
The Cerebellum and Cerebral Cortex
These parts of our brain are responsible for processing sensory information. This includes information from the visual, vestibular and proprioceptive inputs discussed above. They then send motor signals to our eyes, ears and proprioceptive receptors to make adjustments to maintain balance.
Motor signals are sent to the muscles of the eyes to regulate the Vestibulo-ocular reflex. This allows your gaze to stay stable while the position of your head is moving. Motor signals are also sent to muscles to correct upright posture. This is in response to stretch in proprioceptive receptors being detected.
Disruptions to balance can occur with:
- Ageing causes changes to the sensorimotor pathways responsible for balance.
- Musculotendinous injury (such as ligament injury).
- Vestibular conditions (such as vertigo).
- Visual, sensory and oculomotor changes.
- Altered brain function due to brain injury or neurological diseases.
Physiotherapy and improving balance:
Balance doesn’t improve unless we practice doing things that challenge it. The sensorimotor pathways work more quickly and efficiently when your body is familiar with particular situations that challenge balance. Practice is the key!
Balance training may include:
- Standing or performing movements on unstable surfaces.
- Practicing standing/moving on different types of surfaces. This trains the proprioceptive inputs to quickly adapt balance to different surfaces.
- Navigating obstacles whilst moving.
- Training to improve awareness of limb positioning without relying on vision.
- Vestibular-ocular reflex training.
If you’re concerned about your balance, book in with one of our physios to discuss how retraining can help you.