A few months ago, Victory was lucky enough to take on Elizabeth Banks, a therapist who specialises in the vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems. You might see her in the studio, if you’re in on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon. But what does she do, and just what are the systems she specialises in?
How often do you think about your balance? Normally, people don’t tend to consider it unless they’ve recently fallen over or they feel dizzy. Balance is so often described as simply ‘not falling’ but it’s vital to our movement. Just think about stretching for the tennis ball as we move at speed across the court, taking a longer step to avoid a puddle or simply carrying a hot drink up the stairs without half of it ending over your hand – without balance, all of that would be impossible.
Our ability to balance well is linked to our ability to see well and move well. It requires our brain and our nervous system to coordinate three vital systems. The calibration of our visual (eyes), vestibular (ears) and proprioceptive (joint position sensing) systems all need to be in sync. If one system is ‘louder’ than another it can contribute to our pain levels, our movement capacity and feeling of well-being. Think of your GPS navigation in your car – it works by triangulating your location from 3 satellites. If one of the satellites is ‘off’, your location will be inaccurate and you will have trouble navigating your route. Essentially, Elizabeth’s job is to make sure that what your systems are sending to your brain (about where your body is, and what shapes it’s making) is accurate so that your brain can respond properly.
The vestibular system is about the inner ear. Within the inner ear are the semicircular canals and otolith organs, which provide the brain with information about when you move your head. If you’ve ever felt travel sick or had vertigo, you’ve been getting dodgy messages from your vestibular system.
The visual system is about your eyes, which transmit information about the environment around you to your brain. This information includes how well you can see what’s going on around you, whether there is anything moving towards you or away from you (and how fast, large and dangerous such things might be), how far things are away from you, and how flat or undulating the ground might be, and how sturdy it is likely to be. By training the eye muscles we can improve our visual skills and ensure proper muscular and reflexive actions of the eyes.
The proprioceptive system is about your joints, muscles and skin, which have little nerve endings in them which send signals to your brain about the position and shape of the joint, so that your brain knows where your body is in space. Your brain essentially has a map for proprioception – it holds maps for every movement, muscle and joint action. Just like a real map, if the map is blurred or missing information it is hard to find your way. Maps can be blurred through a lot of different ways but previous injury, poor mobility, poor visual and vestibular information will mean your brain doesn’t have the detailed information it needs to create pain free athletic movement.
And finally, there is the cerebellum, which is the area of the brain which the vestibular, visual and proprioceptive systems “report to”, and which responds by telling the muscles when to switch on and off harmoniously in order to produce smooth, balanced movement.
Anything that affects any of these systems (which can include injury and illness) can have a negative effect on your balance and your ability to maintain posture, and on your ability to create confident and accurate movement. The brain places a hierarchy on these systems with vision and vestibular sitting at the top. That’s why it’s essential to assess, train and calibrate vision and balance along with movement training.
People with issues in these systems may not be able to move in an athletic way, and look uncoordinated or feel uncertain of their movement or balance. They may be struggling to recover from injuries or niggles. They might feel totally level when tilted, and when they stand upright they feel crooked! They might also be experiencing dizziness, vertigo, or just don’t feel steady on their feet. We know that quality movement is important for injury recovery, but it’s possible that your movement quality is being affected by your balance rather than by weakness, stiffness or pain.
It’s Elizabeth’s job to analyse your movements and coordination accurately. From this, she can work out which systems are holding you back – and then produce a plan of drills and exercises to help you recalibrate and restore full capacity to your system, so you can move with confidence and athleticism. She helps people from chronic back pain sufferers, to people who’ve just had major surgery, to elite athletes.
Interested? Call us on 0207 175 0150 to book your session with Elizabeth now.