The older we get, the more likely we are to fall. Local doctors and therapists have forged an unusual arrangement to prevent that from happening.
Two years ago, the Louisiana Ear, Nose, Throat and Sinus practice bought the Baton Rouge location of FYSICAL physical therapy.
The partnership reflects the growing need for treating balance issues in older people, said Dr. Ryan Boone, one of the LENTS physicians.
“From a physician’s standpoint, we see lots and lots of people with balance problems, vertigo, complex inner-ear issues, but for every one of those that we see, we probably see 10 to 20 folks who are getting older and having the beginning of some balance issues, and they’re seeing the consequences,” Boone said. “They’re stumbling more often or even falling. It’s just a huge population that needs help.”
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Balance tends to get worse in older adults for several reasons: Eyesight, the inner ear, the balance portion of the brain and nerve feedback from joints and extremities all deteriorate with age, Boone said.
While age-related muscle loss also plays a part, ENTs like Boone deal primarily with the other issues.
Also, COVID-19 has caused many seniors to skip visits to their doctors, who might diagnose balance issues, and to become more sedentary in general.
One in four Americans age 65 and older fall each year, Boone said.
“If you’re indoors sitting in your recliner and you’re over the age of 65, your balance system is going to suffer, particularly when that gets drawn out over 12 to 18 months like we’ve seen with this pandemic,” he said.
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Physical therapy is often prescribed to help patients overcome those issues, and FYSICAL, a national chain of therapy centers, makes balance treatment one of its primary focuses. FYSICAL therapists all have certifications specific to treating balance, said Amy Moore, clinical director at the Baton Rouge location.
“It’s hugely different,” Moore said. “I’ve been a physical therapist for the past seven years, and the past two have been as a vestibular specialist at this particular FYSICAL, and I thought I could do balance but I really couldn’t.”
FYSICAL has a computerized dynamic posturography machine that helps diagnose which factors are causing a patient’s balance problems. During therapy, patients wear harnesses that are attached to ceiling rails which allows them to move around without falling. That allows therapists to push patients to the limits of their balance without risking injury.
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Nelson Bergeron, 82, lost hearing in his right ear in mid-August, and he became so dizzy he couldn’t walk. After seven weeks of therapy, he said he can walk with a cane and sometimes unassisted. His dizziness has mostly disappeared.
“A couple of times I would lose my balance and the harness would keep me up,” Bergeron said.
Boone encourages seniors to seek a medical assessment of their balance systems.
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“We so often see people who say, ‘I’m only 65’ or ‘I’m only 70, and, yeah, I’m stumbling a little more than I did and I’m off-kilter, but I’m not falling and I’m still in great health,’” Boone said. “They don’t recognize that it’s a cumulative problem, and the earlier that we’re addressing it, the better long-term success we’re going to have at preventing the big fall and the big risks.”
Tips to help keep from falling
“There are so many simple things we can build just into the course of our everyday lives to challenge and continue to train these muscles and these nerves and this portion of our brain, our inner ear and our eyes to try to maintain balance,” said Dr. Ryan Boone. “It’s just like hearing: You don’t wait until you’re stone deaf to go get some help with hearing aids. With vision, you don’t wait until you’re completely blind. It’s the same way with balance. You don’t wait until you’re so bad off that you’re falling and you’re literally having a hard time getting from the chair to the bathroom. Preventative maintenance is key.”
Boone and physical therapist Amy Moore offer these tips:
Work on your fitness: Building or maintaining strength is a good long-term strategy for seniors.
Resistance or strength training — Physical exercises often associated with the use of weights, or training techniques such as calisthenics or isometrics.
Walk outside — A moving horizon challenges the balance system
Incorporate balance exercises:
Stand at the base of a stairwell and alternate tapping the lowest stair with each foot while keeping your posture upright.
When walking outside, turn your head from side to side and up and down while maintaining a straight posture.
Stand with your feet together, close your eyes and turn your head 10 times to either side and 10 times up and down.