Monday, February 04, 2008
Keeping your balance
By Val Willingham
Tangia Boyd loves high heels. A confessed shoe fanatic, she's the Carrie Bradshaw of Temple University. So when she was asked to participate in a balance study through Temple's Physical Therapy Department, she thought she'd get to wear a new pair of stilettos. Instead she wound up barefoot, standing on a moving platform, wearing 3-D glasses and strapped to a harness. Sounds more like an amusement park ride than an experiment. But Temple is using a virtual environment to see how and why people recover when they're thrown off balance.
Surrounded by moving screens, the Temple lab is set up to see how the central nervous system handles movement in a natural setting. That's because all our senses help keep us balanced. When there's a change, it can knock us off stride. "If you have an impairment in the sensation of your limbs, your balance will become impaired," said Dr. Emily Keshner, director of the project. "If you lose your inner-ear sensors, your balance is impaired."
More than 6 million people in this country suffer from chronic dizziness or imbalance, and those numbers are expected to grow as our population gets older. As we age, our balance can be affected. Minor injuries can play a big role in balance control. Athletes will favor one side of their bodies if they've hurt a foot or leg and begin to lose their stability. Also good posture is crucial in keeping your balance. Yoga and tai chi can help correct balance at any age. Keshner says these methods "are actually good in two ways. One, they'll strengthen you, but two they also make you pay more attention to the input you are getting from your limbs."
As we get older, our senses begin to change. Our hearing isn't as good, our eyesight may need to be corrected, so by keeping senses intact, balance problems can be avoided. And getting plenty of sleep makes a difference. Being alert helps. Keshner says that's because, "A lot of times, there are so many things going around us, we can't always pay attention to everything that is happening. It becomes a processing problem."
With data from this project, Keshner and her researchers hope to develop tools that can help people, especially stroke victims and those with brain disorders, keep their balance even as they age.
As for Tangia Boyd, she stayed upright on the platform, even though it left her "a little dizzy". At age 42 she's still walking a straight line, which makes it easier for her to get around in her new as Jimmy Choos. Do you have a problem with balance? Tell us how you handle it.
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