Kris’s Corner: The Balance System and How It Works

Our bodies are amazing machines made of multiple parts that work together to manage our every move, every breath, every blink of an eye. How we balance as we move is no different. It takes multiple systems to ensure we remain on our feet instead of finding ourselves falling to the ground.

The visual system allows us to receive information from our environment to assess where we are in space. It takes into account where your head and body are in relation to the rest of the world as well as senses motion between you and your environment.

The somatosensory system is made up of special sensors in your muscles, tendons, joints and skin that relay information to your brain to determine where you are in space. This is called proprioception. The tension in your muscles and tendons, the amount of weight in your joints and pressure on the skin of your feet can tell your brain if you are standing upright or pitched forward even the slightest amount.

The vestibular system is found in your inner ear and is comprised of 3 semicircular canals that are intricate systems of direction and speed of movement. This system works directly with your vision to keep your vision clear while you are moving. There are structures within these canals called otoliths that determine your orientation in space, for example, when you move from lying down to sitting up. Often when this system is not properly functioning people experience what is called vertigo and feel dizzy or as if the world is spinning.

All of the systems above relay information to the brain through the brainstem. This is not only where your muscle coordination and patterns of movement are determined but it is, the command center for deciding what balance system to rely on for the situation your body is in presently. For example, when you are making your way to the bathroom at night and your input from the visual system is decreased due to darkness, the brainstem increases the amount of input it relies on from your somatosensory and vestibular systems to get you there and back safely.

The last integral part of balance that is important to relay here is muscle memory. Our muscles have the ability to rely on practiced movements in order to react quickly and perform the movement needed to correct or maintain balance in challenging situations. The phrase, “practice makes perfect” is true in this case. The more you perform an activity or exercise, the more your muscle memory will improve. This is how athletes that put in the hours of practice get to the big leagues.

So how does physical therapy effect your balance? Therapists are trained to assess muscle length and tension, sensation, and coordination (among other things). Some therapists are also trained specifically in the vestibular system and techniques to correct positional vertigo. Understanding what systems are not optimally contributing to your overall balance can direct your therapist to the type of balance program that your body needs to optimize your safety and quality of life.

If you are interested in learning more about your balance and how to reduce your risk of falls and injury, call 919-350-1508and schedule your free 15 min balance screen today. 
Kris Jolley, PT * WakeMed Physician Practices Physical Therapy

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