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Have you ever tripped in the dark? Are you more cautious walking outside at night? Do you hold the handrail on the stairs more firmly when the lights are dim?

The question is this: did you ever stop to wonder why our balance seems worse in the dark?

One of the key systems that contributes to our ability to balance is the visual system. Our eyes give our brain information about our environment. I often use the example that the message from our eyes to our brain might be, “the sky is up, the ground is down and my body is positioned correctly.”

When the light is low, it’s much harder for our eyes to send our brain accurate and timely information about our environment. It can certainly be easier to trip on an object you don’t see due to poor lighting, but it is also just more difficult to maintain your balance when the lights are down (or out!).

You can test this theory out for yourself at home if you feel safe to do so. If you have a history of falls or feel unsteady, please check in with your healthcare provider before trying these tests. Even if you feel confident in your balance, when trying these tests, always position yourself with a sturdy surface in front of you (i.e. countertop) and perhaps even a chair behind you. Throughout this test, keep your hands close to the sturdy surface but don’t touch it unless you need to grab it for safety.

Start by standing with your feet touching each other side by side for 10 seconds. If this is easy, try again but close your eyes as you hold the position. As soon as you start to feel off balance or sway, open your eyes and put your hands on the countertop. If this position felt easy to do, try standing on one leg for 10 seconds. First try with your eyes open, then with your eyes closed.

Was it harder with your eyes closed? The answer is likely that yes, it was.

While we don’t walk around with our eyes closed, there are often times when our visual information isn’t clear due to low lighting and other factors. In these cases, our brain relies more on other systems to maintain our balance.

One of these systems is the proprioceptive system, which involves messages from our muscles and joints. These messages tell our brain how the different parts of our body are positioned relative to one another. For instance, it is what allows us to know the position our feet are in, even if we aren’t looking at them.

Proprioception can be compromised when we have muscle and joint injury or pain and weakens as we age. But, having said that, there’s good news too — it’s almost always trainable.

Meeting with your physiotherapist to discuss which exercises are appropriate for you to improve your proprioceptive system is the best way to increase your confidence and safety when the lights go out!

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