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THE HUMAN BALANCE SYSTEM: A Stunning and Complex Interaction With Our Environment.



For most of us, the afternoon walk down the driveway to collect our mail is an effortless task – we move through our environment on autopilot as we admire the spectacular surrounding views or internally debrief about the day’s events. Our bodies are packed with powerful sensors that are constantly collecting information about our environment to allow us to move safely and effectively within it. The brain integrates this information and seamlessly coordinates with our muscles to create a response that keeps us upright and oriented to the world around us. It doesn’t take much, however, for this complex system to malfunction, leading to dizziness, nausea, vertigo, and the possibility of falls which may cause serious injury.


The human body utilizes three systems to maintain balance and keep us upright as we move throughout the world: the visual system (our eyes), the vestibular system (deep within our ears), and the somatosensory system (sensors embedded in our muscles and joints). When all three of these systems are functioning the way they are supposed to, the brain and central nervous system take in all of this sensory information and combine it to create an internal “picture” or awareness of where and how our body is oriented relative to the world around us. The brain (particularly the thalamus) is our body’s “grand central station” where all of this complex information is processed and an output is generated.


As we practice and master a given task, our nervous systems learn to integrate the information from these three systems perfectly; seamlessly adjusting to accept more information from one system or the other based on the circumstances. When these systems are working perfectly, and the nervous system is well trained, we are able to execute incredibly complex and stunning feats. The great dancer Misty Copeland effortless floats across the stage in a perfectly oriented Grande Jeté. Tommy Caldwell shifts his left hip slightly inward to maintain his balance on a dime-edge 1,600ft off the ground. We are wired for balance in an intricate and inexplicable way.


This intricacy means that if we experience deterioration of one of these systems (eyes, ears, joints or muscles) or an impaired processing center (the brain and nervous system), it’s likely that the “picture” that keeps us oriented may be significantly affected. Events such as a stroke, car accident, or joint replacement can profoundly affect the way these systems interact with one another. Simple aging, or even getting a new eye-glass prescription can affect our vision and vestibular systems, wreaking havoc on our sense of stability. That’s not even to mention a whole host of other ways in which different medications or health conditions (diabetes or high-blood pressure) may affect these systems.


Physical therapists are skilled health-care providers with advanced training in screening each individual system (including neuro-muscular, vestibular, visual, and cardiovascular systems) to determine which systems are functioning correctly and which ones may need to be “up-trained” to return to full functioning. The providers at Alpenstrong are skilled in both diagnosis and treatment of these systems. If you’re having difficulty with balance, or feel like you just don’t have the “edge” you once did, give us a call to schedule a balance screen. We’ll help you determine which system needs a little extra attention, and we’ll design a customized, individual training plan to help you restore your systems to full functioning.


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