It’s Balance Awareness week this week so I thought I’d do my bit to try and raise awareness and understanding of how a lack of balance can affect our lives.
There are three main things that help us to keep our balance, vision, our leg and core muscles and our ears. We take visual cues from our surroundings, our legs can sense if the ground is soft and uneven and our ears act like a spirit level, telling the brain if we’re overbalancing. With information from these three areas we know which way is up, we can stay standing and walking with no problem. If messages from one area are struggling such as in darkness, the other two can usually manage.
Balance is one of those things we take for granted…until we have a problem! This can be a short term ear problem such as vertigo or labyrinthitis, or longer term such as Meniere’s disease or like me where no cause has been found, though I suspect it’s probably auto-immune. It’s also one of those invisible disabilities, people can’t see there’s a problem so can get frustrated if for example they’re trying to walk past me and I’m walking in a wobbly line.
I have no balance from my ears, it started in between babies and they’re 25 and 27 years old now!!! The only messages my brain gets are from visual cues or from my leg muscles and central core muscles. Take one of those away and I have a problem;
Darkness is an obvious problem, but so is bright sunlight, there’s a square in the centre of Leeds which has white paving stones, I struggle to walk across it in brilliant sunshine. Painting walls was a problem I didn’t anticipate, but when you’re close up to a plain wall, there are no visual clues for balance.
We also get visual cues from our surroundings, being able to see a horizon gives your brain clues to help you balance, this isn’t just in the big outdoors, even in a shopping centre the lines of sight are giving you clues. However, in the middle of a crowd, such as a busy train station or leaving a theatre, many visual clues on the horizon are lost and I need a friendly arm to hold on too. Similarly a narrow passage can cause issues, when I go for the bus on a morning there’s a narrow snicket with hedges on each side, I really shouldn’t walk down it in the dark but it saves me about 5 minutes so I do,,,with a fair bit of ricocheting off the hedges!!
Soft, uneven ground can cause issues, if I’m walking in the countryside then I always use walking poles, it just gives me that extra point of contact. Having a third point of contact makes all the difference, even walking around town I’ll just keep fingertip contact with walls or fences, whatever I’m passing really. In the garden I have ‘wobble poles’ decorative metal stakes I have placed in beds to just give me that extra point of contact, these are especially helpful when the ground is soft. I’ve also worked out that it’s a loss of contact points that makes digging tricky for me, to dig you have to stand on one leg, it may only be for a few seconds, but it can be a few seconds too long.
People with no balance classically fall like a tree trunk, straight over like Delboy in that wonderful clip from Only Fools and Horses. We don’t realise we’re falling until it’s too late. When I’m taking a photo on one of our many walks and I’m stood on soft ground, looking through the viewfinder, I’ll often feel my friend grabbing my rucksack on my back to stop me falling, when I’m completely unaware of it.
My brain doesn’t compensate for head movements, not only does this mean everything ‘wobbles ‘ as I move, it also makes it difficult to focus on things or people unless I’m still, I can walk straight past people I know and not see them, I find it hard to read road signs or information boards unless I’m standing still. It also makes it difficult to find things in places like supermarkets, I can’t quickly scan the shelves as I’m walking down an aisle.
To me living with any issue is about knowing your limits to keep you safe, but also to keep pushing yourself, expanding horizons that are within your capabilities. I love to walk up mountains, I accept that sometimes I will fall over, touch wood I’ve never hurt myself, but I know and my walking buddy knows which areas I struggle with and importantly when to turn back and abandon the walk. I’m lucky in having a close circle of family and friends who appreciate and understand my issues, I’m fiercely independent and will climb ladders and stand on chairs rather than ask for help, but sometimes even I have to admit that I can’t safely do something without help.
I can appreciate it’s difficult to imagine life with no balance, so I put together a two minute video a couple of years ago to try and show the world through my eyes, it’s on YouTube so here’s the link. If you want further information about balance issues, the VEDA website is very good.