Keeping Balance

by Brace Hayden

Each year, Americans aged 65 and older have a 1 in 3 chance of falling .

In fact, every 13 seconds, an older adult is treated in their local emergency room for a fall.

And every 20 minutes, an older adult dies of complications from a fall.

The likelihood of vertigo and dizziness in people over age 60 is as high as 30 percent. Symptoms of dizziness in older adults is a strong predictor of falls.

Considering the ever-increasing number of aging adults, falls are a rapidly expanding public health
concern. These statistics aim to raise awareness of a widespread challenge, prevent future falls and
motivate people to reduce their relative risk factors.

Falls can happen for a number of reasons, including poor balance, reduced leg strength, medication issues, difficulties with vision, and dizziness due to vestibular dysfunction.

Our balance mechanism comes from a combination of input to the brain from three systems: information from our vision, information from proprioceptors (positional receptors in our feet and legs) and information from our vestibular system. The vestibular system is a small organ in the inner ear that can cause big difficulties when it is not working properly.

This neurological relay station gives the brain feedback on how the head is moving in relation to one’s surroundings. Thus, when the vestibular system is experiencing problems, dizziness is a frequent
symptom, and one’s ability to balance is challenged. A symptom of vertigo, or the odd sensation of
spinning when you are still, is a common complaint when the vestibular system is malfunctioning.

Eighty percent of adults over age 65 will experience dizziness or light-headedness of some kind, with
Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV) being the most prevalent vestibular disorder, comprising
approximately 50 percent of cases.

Assessing and treating these problems by a vestibular rehabilitation specialist often reduces the balance and dizziness issue, thereby reducing falls and the complications associated with this health hazard.

Physical therapists are often at the forefront of improving lives by assessing and treating difficulties with movement. Testing for movement dysfunction will often include assessment of leg strength, the ability to walk, and how well one can balance. An accurate diagnosis often requires more specialized tests to determine which system or systems are causing the problems, increasing the importance of seeking providers specializing in vestibular rehabilitation.

If you or a loved one is experiencing difficulties with balance or dizziness, it is important to get this addressed by a licensed medical provider. Falls are a very preventable catastrophe. Talk to your health care provider or physical therapist if you have concerns about your balance, ability to move well, or risk for falls.

Brace Hayden, DPT, OCS, SCSC is a physical therapist who specializes in vestibular and orthopedic rehabilitation at Alpine Physical Therapy in Missoula

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