Ignoring This ONE Sense Could Be Causing You to Fall
It’s fairly well known the complex set of tubing in the inner ear helps us sense where we are within our surroundings and in relation to gravity. We refer to this as equilibrium. But there are other sense mechanisms within our body that communicate with the brain about our surroundings and our placement within those surroundings.
Equilibrioception or sense of balance is one of the physiological senses. The sense is a mechanism by which a living organism receives information about its external or internal environment, allowing it to react accordingly. The 5 traditionally recognized methods of perception are broadly defined as: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
Thanks to the recent work of folks like Dr. Kelly Starrett and Miranda Esmonde-White, the word is finally getting out that our feet need to be set free to perform better and reduce pain. But the foot also plays a vital role in our sense of balance. In fact, our feet are supplied with some 200,000 nerve endings per sole making them one of the most important sense mechanisms we have in regards to balance. But the foot’s ability to feel connected to the ground is crucial to its performance.
Physiological senses such as our vision and hearing constantly feed information to the brain about our surroundings. The nerves in our feet (touch) are also contributing to our overall good balance and body awareness by communicating to our brain information about our location in space and the type of surface we are on (hard, smooth, mushy, slick, incline, gravely, uneven) and pressure. The brain then uses this information to instantaneously alert the muscles how to respond and adapt.
These back and forth messages from the nerves in the bottoms of our feet to the brain and back to the muscles travel along neuromuscular pathways. These pathways are like your body’s interstate highway system.
Similar to a highway system, traffic can flow quickly or it can become clogged and slow. With lack of use between nerves, brain and muscles, the highways (nerve pathways) become inefficient and lack responsiveness. Like rubberneckers during an accident the traffic flow is slow. Happily these pathways can be cleared and resumed to normal flow and efficiency.
The sensitive nerves along the bottom of our feet can become dulled by not regularly receiving stimulation throughout the day. As our shoes become thicker, we begin to lose touch with the ground. Our sense of foot placement is less accurate and we may misjudge, especially when we aren’t paying close attention with our eyes. The sensitive nerve endings in the bottoms of our feet are there to help us make proper adaptations. But when they are hindered by the thickness of the shoe sole and the many hours we wear them, our brain won’t receive the proper information it needs to efficiently communicate back to our foot muscles how and where to step.
Efficiency of communication between the nerves/brain/muscles is gradually reduced from lack of use or ‘practice’. Our responsiveness becomes sluggish and our coordination is diminished. This reduced coordination and agility is not due to age. It’s due to lack of training and hindered touch. If an athlete wants to stay sharp, he regularly uses his muscles so they are responsive when he needs them. Our senses also need to be used regularly to keep them efficient and sharp.
Losing sensation in the feet due to numbness and reduced circulation also contributes to reduced coordination and seeming loss of balance. Shoes worn over long periods of time with little stimulation, stretching or strengthening of the foot and toes are an overlooked cause.
So let’s start by looking down. What do you see? An expensive shoe with a thick, cushy sole? How many hours a day do you wear these shoes? How tight are they? Can you move your toes and ankles freely? Now take them off and try that again.
As we age we can lose the fatty paddings on the bottom of our feet. In this case, a soft insert is recommended for relief or you can exercise your feet on a mat. But if this is not the case for you, consider reducing the thickness of the soles on your shoes giving your feet the opportunity to be stimulated by the textures of the surfaces in your surroundings.
Get out in the grass, stretch your toes and ankles, lift and grip with your toes. Relearn the sensation of touch through the skin of your feet. Roll a tennis ball across your foot or roll your foot over the tennis ball. Begin going without shoes for 30 minutes a day and increase gradually until you can go for greater lengths of time, even performing an entire 30 minute GentleFit or ForeverFit class where your feet will be stretched, strengthened and stimulated. Your feet will thank you and your balance with greatly improve.