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Balance Problems and Physical Therapy

Apr 12, 2022

by Kaitlin Adams PT, DPT | North Phoenix Location

People of all ages can experience falls, but for seniors, the risk is greater, and the effects of the fall are often more severe than in the younger population. Physical therapy can help you recover from a fall. Not only that, but if you begin physical therapy before falling, it can mitigate the risk, possibly preventing a fall from happening in the first place.

Why Are Falls More Dangerous for Seniors?

Every year falls affect approximately one-third of the elderly population. Approximately one out of five of these falls results in head trauma, broken bones, or other serious injuries. Underlying medical conditions that weaken bones, such as osteoporosis, can compound the risk of fractures or other serious injuries.

The chances of elderly people dying from a fall are greater than for younger people and have been steadily increasing since 2007. Even if a fall does not prove fatal, it can rob you of your independence. 

Falls are the reason behind 40% of all nursing home admissions, and nearly half of those admitted to a nursing home following a fall live out the rest of their lives there rather than returning to their prior living situation. However, the chances of surviving a fall and returning to independent living increase by 80% when you seek help after a fall, which can include physical therapy.

What Factors Increase Your Risk of Falling?

Most falls among senior citizens result from a combination of issues with balance, which is your ability to orient yourself in space to stay upright, and gait, which is the way you walk. Gait issues often grow out of balance issues because when you don’t feel confident about your ability to stay upright, you may make changes to the way you walk to help you feel steadier. This can happen subconsciously, so you may not even be aware of the changes.

Factors that can affect your balance and lead to gait changes include the following:

1. Visual Impairments

Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration are all examples of eye conditions that tend to affect older people and impair vision. Even normal vision changes associated with aging can affect depth perception and visual acuity. This can affect your balance by making it more difficult to see where you are stepping or detect obstacles in your way.

2. Muscle Weakness

Cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration are all examples of eye conditions that tend to affect older people and impair vision. Even normal vision changes associated with aging can affect depth perception and visual acuity. This can affect your balance by making it more difficult to see where you are stepping or detect obstacles in your way.

3. Medication Side Effects

While medications may be necessary to regulate certain medical conditions, they can cause side effects that can affect your balance, such as fatigue, dizziness, and decreased blood pressure. If you have concerns that your medications may be contributing to your fall risk, you should talk to your doctor about adjusting your dosage rather than discontinuing the medication.

Other underlying medical conditions can also affect your balance and fall risk. For example, trouble with the vestibular system can cause vertigo. Arthritis can cause pain in your joints, making your gait stiffer, while peripheral neuropathy can cause a poor sensation in your feet.

Physical therapist assessing patients leg strength

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

Since balance issues often result from a combination of factors, you may not know what is causing the problem. This is where physical therapy can be helpful. During your initial evaluation, you will complete a balance assessment to determine what specific deficits may be affecting you. Once these risk factors have been identified, your physical therapist can create a customized exercise program to address them.

Physical therapy helps with other factors associated with fall risk as well as balance issues. If you have muscle weakness that contributes to your risk, your physical therapist can teach you exercises for strengthening and instruct you on how to perform them at home. Your physical therapist will also perform a gait assessment to see if you would benefit from using an assistive device for ambulation. If you already use such a device, a therapist can make sure you are using it correctly and, if not, teach you the proper technique.

The goal of physical therapy is to help prevent you from falling. However, there is still a risk, and physical therapy can also teach you techniques and strategies that you can use if you fall and are unable to get up off the floor by yourself.

What Else Can You Do To Prevent Falls?

Exercising to maintain strength and balance and regulating underlying medical conditions can go a long way toward reducing your fall risk. There are external risk factors as well, but here are some ideas for mitigating them:

  • Declutter your home to remove obstacles that could pose tripping hazards
  • Remove throw rugs from your home
  • Wear footwear with a gripping sole to prevent slips
  • Install a motion-sensitive night light so you can see where you’re going after dark
  • Install grab bars in the bathroom and be careful of slippery surfaces
  • Use hand railings when walking on stairs or ramps
  • Walk on flat, even surfaces outside as much as possible

Beginner Exercises to Improve Your Balance At Home

By Jacob Kelso, PT, DPT at Foothills North Mesa

Sit-to-stand Elevators

Sit to stand balance exercise

  1. Sit in a sturdy chair, with your feet on the floor about hip distance apart.
  2. Stand up slowly, placing your weight evenly on your feet.
  3. Rise as much as you can, even if it’s just an inch or two.

Single-leg Balance

Man balancing on one leg.

Balancing on one leg can help improve your strength, stability, and body awareness, all in one exercise.

  1. Stand on a flat surface.
  2. Bend one of your knees and squeeze the buttock of your standing leg.
  3. Be careful that your legs do not touch, and try not to hold on to anything with your hands.

Squat to Overhead Reach

Sit to squat overhead reach exercise

  1. Begin with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and toes pointed outward. Raise your right arm and touch the top right corner of a wall or object.
  2. Keeping weight in your heels, come back to the middle to sit back into a deep squat. Make sure your knees do not go beyond your toes. Keep your core engaged as you squat.
  3. With your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and toes pointed outward, raise your left arm and touch the top left corner of a wall or object.

You don’t have to wait to start physical therapy until after a fall. Starting physical therapy now can help you prevent a fall and the serious and costly injuries it can cause. Schedule an appointment with a Foothills physical therapist today at the location nearest you to get your balance back!

Kaitlin Adams

by Kaitlin Adams
PT, DPT | North Phoenix Location

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