As we start a new year, many people are vowing to achieve balance in their lives. Often that means finding work/life balance, but the search for balance is more literal for some of us.
Balance, or equilibrium, is important for athletes of all levels. Swinging a bat, running backward to hit a tennis ball and catching a rebound in an awkward position all require properly functioning equilibrium so that you don’t fall down every time you put yourself in a challenging spot.
There are three systems in the human body which compromise equilibrium or balance: vision, proprioception and the vestibular system.
The vestibular system lies deep in the skull and makes up the inner ear. It is comprised of bony "rings" filled with fluid that send signals to the brain as to where the head is positioned in space at all times.
It even sends signals to the eyes that allow you to maintain focus on an object while you or your head is moving. This is why you can maintain focus on an object while moving your head back and forth or up and down.
The vestibular system is a crucial element in maintaining balance. If it doesn’t work properly, you may experience severe disequilibrium, or loss of balance, and even dizziness.
There are many causes of dizziness secondary to inner ear problems. The most common causes in adult athletes occur because of trauma to the head, inner ear infections or barotrauma (which occurs when people fly with upper respiratory infections). These directly affect the vestibular system itself.
A problem with proprioception also can affect a person’s equilibrium. Proprioception is the awareness of posture, movement and changes in equilibrium and the knowledge of position, weight and resistance of objects in relation to the body.
Proprioception can be affected by damage to a joint, mainly weight-bearing joints such as the ankle or knee. For example, when an athlete has knee surgery and has difficulty balancing on that leg, that’s a disruption of that joint’s proprioception receptors. These receptors cannot accurately tell the brain where the joint is in space because they were damaged in the surgery.
That’s where physical therapy comes into the picture. Utilizing specific balance exercises, a physical therapist can help the athlete practice and regain proper function of the joint proprioceptors that were damaged secondary to an injury or surgery.
Physical therapists can help the dizzy patient, too. Those who have vertigo can be treated by a physical therapist to fix the source of the problem or retrain the brain to accommodate to the problem using specific exercises.
Jim Hlavacek MS, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist at The Rehabilitation Institute, 597 S. Enota Drive NE, Gainesville; 770-219-8200, www.nghs.com/rehab. His column appears monthly.