Dec 22

Balance: Machine Identifies Trouble Areas


“Losing balance does not have to be a normal part of the aging process,” Amy Downing says.

Downing, a physical therapist and owner of Element Physical Therapy in Missoula, uses a state-of-the-art machine called the NeuroCom SMART EquiTest, to diagnose and treat balance problems.

“It’s the best technology we have in the world to assess balance problems,” Downing said.

While there is a connotation between physical therapy and athletics, Downing said more than 75 percent of her patients are either older people or those looking to recover from a fall injury, balance problems like dizziness, or a  medical condition like multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease. On average, Element’s patients have seen four different medical professionals before being sent there.

Elements-Equip-4476“We can identify problems in the three systems that deal with balance: the visual, vestibular and somatosensory, all with this machine,” Downing said.

Some people have an issue with effectively using the data their eyes are telling the brain about what they see. Others have issues with the balance controlled by their inner ear. Somatosensory refers to problems with both the sensation of feeling from the bottom of the feet, as well as the muscles and rectionas of the ankle. All three systems tie together to affect how people balance, and Element’s machinery can test for issues in each of them.

The tests also provide Element and its patients with objective data that can be used to inform other lifestyle choices.

The machine is the same tool used by the Mayo Clinic, and was originally designed and commissioned by NASA, which was looking for a solution to astronauts becoming ill and vomiting upon reentry into the atmosphere.

It’s still being used by the U.S. government to train and assess Navy SEALs and other special operations soldiers, and is the only equipment allowed in balance-related medical legal cases.

“If you are worried if mom or dad should still be driving, we can examine whether they have the vision to be able to see, or work with them to improve on it,” Downing said.

Flash-Equipment-3524Using the SMART EquiTest, Downing can have a patient stand on a foot plate and run through diagnostic testing. These start by having them stand still, then do it again but with their eyes closed.

As the tests continue, the foot plate and the shroud surrounding the machine can adjust with a person’s movements, if they start to tip forward, the plate and surrounding will shift as well. Downing said many people have a natural reaction to tip forward, then over correct when they lean back, and end up having to fight for balance.

During the testing, patients are secured with a parachute harness so they can be free to accurately test the limits of their balance.

“This is the safest place to fall, better in here than out there,” Downing said.

Once the diagnosis tests have been conducted, the EquiTest can run a patient through any of 600 pre-programmed exercises to train their balance, or Downing can modify or create her own custom routines to fit a person’s needs. All of the exercises also inform what she types of activities she tells them to do at home on their own.

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