Balancing Act: Many factors can affect your stability

News Archive (2012)

Balancing Act: Many factors can affect your stability

By Connie Midey, The Republic |

Her head leading the way, Helen O'Neill used to hurry from place to place. And then she'd fall. 

Improving stability Balance training has been shown to reduce the risk of falling by almost 50 percent, Gilbert physician Mona Mhatre of the CORE Institute says. These tips from Mhatre and the National Institutes of Health may prevent a life-threatening fracture, head trauma or other fall-related injury in your later years:

  • See your doctor. "Because there can be so many causes for poor balance, you want to find out if the cause is something that can be treated," Mhatre says.
  • Do strength exercises. Consult your doctor or a physical therapist to plan a safe workout program. "Strengthening the muscles in your lower extremities helps to support and stabilize your body and keep it more flexible," she says.
  • Do balance exercises. "Even if the exercises don't solve the root problem, they can reduce the risk of falling," Mhatre says. In addition to ordinary walking, these activities aid balance:
  • Tandem walking. Place one foot directly in front of the other while walking -- in other words, put your left foot down so the heel touches the front of your right foot, and so on.
  • Changing your stance. While brushing your teeth or washing the dishes, stand with one foot in front of the other or with both feet side by side and touching.
  • Flamingo stand. Stand on one leg, then the other, for a few seconds at a time. Until you're sure of your stability, hold a countertop or the back of a sturdy chair while trying this.
  • Water aerobics or water walking. These are gentle on the joints, making them good choices for people with arthritis.
  • Tai chi. The slow, graceful movements of this exercise promote balance and self-confidence. Dance can help in the same way.

"I was top-heavy," she says, laughing at the image. "My body was moving forward, but my feet were not coming with me. I'd trip over nothing." Now the Phoenix woman takes time to stretch each morning before getting out of bed, then pulls her head back, stands up straight and leads with her legs instead of the top half of her body throughout her daily activities. "My balance is so much better now," she says. O'Neill will be 81 in April, but it's not just age or inattention that cause balance to decline and falls to become more likely. Physician Mona Mhatre, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the CORE (Center for Orthopedic Research and Education) Institute, says medical issues sometimes alter the body's ability to maintain equilibrium. These can include heart disease, diabetes, certain medicines and variations in blood pressure. "A number of body systems have to work together for us to maintain balance," Mhatre says. "If there's a disorder in the visual system, in hearing, in proprioception -- our body's sense of where it is in space -- any of these things can cause balance problems." In older people, muscle and joint weakness also may contribute, making even routine daily activities difficult to perform safely and causing quality of life to suffer. "Balance problems are the leading cause of falls," Mhatre says. "And falls are the leading cause of hospital admissions for non-fatal injuries." The term "non-fatal" fails to convey how serious a fall can be, especially for people 65 and older. "A large percentage don't survive once they've had a hip fracture," she says. "They become debilitated and bedridden, and that increases their risk for other problems."

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