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What is Balance?

What is Balance?

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In my specialty of Ear, Nose and Throat I frequently have patients sent to me for evaluation of problems with his or her balance. A major reason is that disorders and problems with the inner ear are frequently associated with dizziness or vertigo. But not all disorders of the balance system are related to ear problems.  And many of them are complex medical issues with no easy cure.

What is balance? The dictionary definition is “a condition of stability and equilibrium”. That is a fair starting point for discussion. Whether we are walking, standing, turning around or dancing, balance is essential to keep us upright and provide our brain and other sense organs of a feeling of stability and calmness.

The balance center of our bodies is located towards the base of the brain. It is often described as a computer analyzing information that tells us if we are stable, moving or about to fall. The information gets to the balance center from our eyes, which tell us where we are located compared to our surroundings or the far horizon. Information also comes from sensory nerve fibers in our inner ears. Additionally the balance center gets input from our spinal cord position, especially in the neck, a process known as proprioception. Therefore any condition that limits vision (such as walking into a dark bathroom at night or down the hill of a dark movie theater) can throw a weakened balance system off. Multiple diseases of the balance portion of the inner ear occur and can be simple or very difficult to treat. Neck pain, stiffness and decreased mobility will also lead to balance disorders.

One thing I cannot stress enough is that the best treatment for almost every balance disorder is physical activity. I know many people do not want to hear this, but our balance system is like our muscles. Regular exercise and actually stressing the balance system is essential for its health. You cannot expect to go from the bed in the morning to the breakfast table to the couch to the easy chair to the bed at night without losing much of your balance system. Use it or lose it applies.

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Unfortunately I see many patients who want the convenience of a pill to cure everything.  And while medicine has multiple “wonder drugs” very few exist to heal a weakened balance system.

Activities that help maintain a healthy balance include dancing, yoga, Pilates, swimming or water aerobics, bicycle riding and simple maneuvers such as standing on one foot (you can hold on to a wall or table top).  If you sit or lay down on the floor and cannot get up without assistance, please get motivated to improve your balance and your overall health.

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