How Balance Reflexes Limit Falls
By: Dr. Beth Templin
When I think about how to prevent falls, I think about it in two different phases. The first is the Pre-Fall phase. This is the time period before you've had a fall. During this phase you may notice that you are not as steady on your feet as you have been in the past.
You may start reaching for walls or furniture for additional support. When you go outside, you may concentrate more on each step you take. Or you may go out of your way to avoid grass, gravel or any other uneven surface.
The second phase of fall prevention is the Near-Fall phase. During this phase you lose your balance but can successfully catch yourself and avoid having a fall. Your balance has worsened, but your balance reflexes are still strong enough to help you catch yourself. As your reflexes slow down, you will reach a point where you're no longer able to catch yourself and you begin to experience falls.
Why Reflexes Decline With Age
In order to have good balance reflexes, you need to be able to move big and fast. Most people begin to lose muscle strength as they age. This can lead to
not being able to take a big enough step to stop a fall and catch yourself.
As you age, you also move less than when you were younger. As a result, you challenge your reflexes less. This means your reflexes don't fire as quickly as they need to in order to stop a fall. Just like anything else in your body, your balance reflexes are "use it or lose it".
The good news is your reflexes actually can retrain very quickly. And the better your reflexes, the more likely you are to catch yourself and avoid a fall.
How To Improve Your Reflexes
One way of improving your balance is to work on reactive step training.
When you perform these kind of drills, you work on practicing stepping in different directions in an unpredictable pattern. This helps to prepare your body for the unknown. You can learn more about these kinds of exercises in Dr. Kim's exercise of the month, view it here.
Another way to improve your balance reflexes is to participate in "push" or perturbation training. During this kind of treatment, a physical therapist will intentionally push you off balance so you can practice catching yourself. At HouseFit, we can replicate these real world slips and trips on our ActiveStep Balance Trainer.
Resisted walking is a third method of improving your ability to catch yourself. When you perform resisted walking you are typically anchored to a wall with a stretchy resistance band. Think about walking away from the wall and stretching the band and then having to control your steps as you return to the wall. We commonly provide this kind of training during our Physical Therapy sessions.
All of these options are designed to make sure that you take a big enough and quick enough step to catch yourself.
The most important aspect of these drills is to make sure you are performing them at varied speeds and in all directions. Falls don't typically happen in slow motion, so being able to practice quick speeds is important. It's also hard to predict in which direction you may lose you balance, so being prepared in all directions is a safe bet.
If you're having trouble with your balance, or have already started to fall, we can help. Call to schedule a Free Assessment with our team.
Ready to give it a try? Check out Kim's exercise of the month by clicking HERE.
❤️ Dr. Beth
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Dr. Beth helps adults 55+ maximize their independence and fitness, so they can continue to enjoy a full and active life.