Loss of Balance
Contributed by Caroline Hunt

When we’re young, loss of balance is seldom an issue, and we can easily meet the challenge of riding on bikes, skates or even surf boards.  Unfortunately, keeping our balance as we age can be difficult, yet is a vital part of staying active and healthy. Good balance helps you to avoid falling when doing everyday activities such as walking climbing stairs, bending over, or squatting down.  With good balance, you can catch yourself if you happen to trip on an unexpected object, or at least protect yourself as you go down. Here are a few tips as to why balance problems occur, and what you can do to help.

What Causes Balance Problems?

Many factors can contribute to loss of balance.  This is frequently frustrates both doctors and patients because pinpointing an exact cause can be difficult.  Often there is more than one cause.

Some loss of balance is a normal part of aging. As we age, we lose muscle mass.  Loss of muscle tone in the thighs makes it more difficult to sit down and get up.  It can also affect our balance when walking.  Fortunately, exercise and a good multivitamin can help keep muscle loss to a minimum.

Joint problems, such as arthritis, can often significantly contribute to balance difficulties.  Proper exercise and diet can ease joint problems, but not cure them. While muscle and joint pains are an almost inevitable part of aging, certain conditions that affect the ears, the nervous system, and the cardiovascular system are not.


How the Ears Affect Balance

The ears contain the vestibular system which plays a major role in keeping our balance. A series of canals called the labyrinth, inside the inner ear, is the main part of the vestibular system and is crucial to good balance.

The vestibular system tells the brain where your body is in relationship to things around it. Problems in the inner ear can cause dizziness, lightheadedness or vertigo. Vertigo is a sensation that you are moving or spinning around when you are motionless.

I can testify from personal experience that vertigo is no fun.  I have severe sinus problems and allergies, which sometimes affect my right ear.  A couple of years ago, after I had just turned fifty, I woke in the middle the night with the sensation that the room was shaking. When I opened my eyes, the walls appeared to be moving up and down.  For an instant I thought an explosion or an earthquake had occurred. I sat up carefully and after sitting quietly for awhile, everything in the room began to seem normal again and I realized I needed to see a doctor about my ears.

Several conditions can cause vertigo. When a condition such as an ear infection, allergies or sinus trouble is the cause, vertigo will generally disappear once the condition has been treated. Now that I regular take my allergy medications, my own vertigo has virtually disappeared.

Two other relatively common conditions affect many people over age sixty.  Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) causes intense, but brief, vertigo when you look up or down, rollover in bed, or move your head suddenly to look at something.

A balance disorder called Ménière’s Disease can cause vertigo, tinnitus (roaring or ringing in the ears), and a feeling of pressure in the ear, along with occasional, temporary hearing loss.  Prescription medications for motion sickness may provide relief from vertigo to BPPV and Ménière’s sufferers.

How Cardiovascular and Nervous System Problems Affect Balance

Cardiovascular conditions such as strokes and blood pressure problems can cause severe loss of balance.  The sudden inability to keeps one’s balance accompanied by vision problems, headache, slurred speech, or numbness of the face or limbs can be signs of a stroke and should be immediately be
evaluated by doctors.

While high blood pressure is generally symptom-free, it can be accompanied by lightheadedness. Many older people experience postural hypotension, a condition in which the blood pressure drops when you stand up.  The sudden drop in blood pressure can cause a blackening of the vision and cause you to lose your balance.

Nervous system problems, such as peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage) can also interfere with your balance.  This health occurrence can occur in any part of the body, but frequently occurs in the feet; the nerves can be so damaged that your feet don’t send the proper signals to the brain as you walk. However, diabetes is amongst the most common cause of neuropathy, but it can also be caused by infection or trauma.

Additionally, balance problems are sometimes caused by other serious, chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s.


Self-Help for Balance Problems

Exercise can help prevent loss of balance. Walking and Tai Chi are wonderful exercises to maintain and improve your balance.  They improve muscle tone and stimulate the areas of the brain responsible for maintaining the balance. 

Physical activity can’t directly help conditions which cause vertigo, but the proper exercises can help retrain your brain so it compensates for your lack of balance.  A qualified physical therapist can show you the best exercises to use if you are experiencing vertigo or other balance disorders that aren’t
related to lack of muscle tone.

Good nutrition also plays role in maintaining our balance as we get older.  Eat adequate high quality protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats to maintain muscle and nerve health.

If you are already dealing with a balance problem, practice fall prevention, remove throw rugs and other obstacles from your home, install safety rails or even click here to purchase a medical alert aid. Remember to get up slowly and wait a minute before beginning to walk. If you suffer from circulation-related vertigo, pumping your feet up and down before you stand up will promote better circulation, making it easier to maintain your balance.

Above all, don’t get discouraged.  Loss of balance can be treated, so that you can maintain your active lifestyle.


Sources:

“Balance Problems” NIH Senior Health
http://nihseniorhealth.gov/balanceproblems/aboutbalanceproblems/01.html

Schurpert, Charlotte and Fay Horak.  “Balance and Aging”  Vestibular
Disorders Association.  http://vestibular.org/sites/default/files/page_files/Balance%20and%20Aging_0.pdf


Return from Loss of Balance to Home Page