Balance & Gait Disorders
Gaining and regaining our balance is a lifelong process. Have you ever watched a baby learn how to walk? We simultaneously cheer and worry as they struggle to maintain their balance as they wobble across the floor. Have you ever helped a baby sit up or taught a child how to ride a bike? Each of these developmental milestones is the cumulation of weeks or even months of strength building and balance that we often take for granted. As life goes on, our balance begins to become less reliable. It is only when we suddenly find ourselves faltering on our own two feet that we begin to realize just how important balance is in our lives. Are you struggling with a loss of balance? Do you have a gait disorder that is keeping you unsteady on your feet? Physical therapy can help.
What Causes a Loss of Balance?
Whether you have recently had surgery, have developed vertigo as the result of an illness, or have noticed your balance seems “off” lately, the loss of balance is as much a neurological concern as it is a physical one. Not only do you need a pair of healthy feet and quality shoes to keep your balance, your ability to stay upright is connected to much of your nervous system. Each of the following body parts play a role in your ability to stay balanced:
- Inner ears
- Nervous system
- Cognitive functions
When one part is affected by stroke, surgery, illness, or injury, your sense of balance is upset. Therapy that improves gait and balance works with all of these systems to keep them functioning in harmony.
Gait Training and Balance Therapy
How you walk – your pace, rhythm and style – are also known as your gait. After a foot or leg injury, or after a neurological problem such as a stroke, you may find yourself with a need to improve your walking skills. Gait training can improve your leg or foot movement to increase your stability. Common in runners, athletes, older adults, and those who have had an injury, gait training can help you move faster, with better posture and without pain.
Your gait and your ability to maintain your balance while you are moving are deeply intertwined. If your muscles have atrophied (become weaker) after an injury, or if you favor one foot because of chronic pain, you may find that both your gait and your balance are affected. In some cases, the original injury is not what is holding you back from moving quickly and easily, but chronic weakness or slow reflexes. Even increased fatigue from muscles can result in changes to your gait and balance as you move. Gait training can help strengthen weakened muscles, improve joint flexibility, relieve pain, and improve reflexes that make walking or running easier. It can also help you feel more confident in your footing as you age.
Physical Therapy for Balance & Gait Training
As overwhelming as it may be to think about changing something so fundamental as the way you walk, physical therapy is the most effective tool for improving balance and gait training. Working with an experienced physical therapist, you can regain your strength, shore up your footing and improve your posture and overall balance. Targeted exercises can strengthen weakened muscles, help you feel more confident and aware on your feet, and lessen your chance of injury via fall.
Your physical therapist will first perform a thorough evaluation. After discussing your areas of concern, they may order diagnostic imaging and perform functional tests that allow them to see your foot placement, walking pace and step style. Since physical therapists are experts at movement, they can spot potential problems with your strength and posture that may be contributing to your balance and gait problems. Armed with this information, they will develop a personalized treatment plan that may include targeted exercises to strengthen weakened muscles, stretches to improve flexibility, changes to your footwear, and recommendations for any accommodations that will improve your balance during dizzy spells. Your therapist will also periodically evaluate your progress and make adjustments to your goals and treatments.