Foot Massage and Balance
There are an impressive number of nerve endings on the bottoms of the feet. Many of these are the types that function by changing shape and reporting the fact that they changed shape to the central nervous system.
The receptor at the end of the nerve changes shape by being pressed on, or stretched, though this can happen in a variety of ways. For instance we can stand up and our weight goes onto our feet, creating pressure. We can walk and a rock might press into the bottom of our foot, creating pressure locally and bone movement and tissue stretch around it. We can step onto a slanted surface and create compression of the receptors on one side of our foot while creating stretch on the receptors of the other side of the foot.
In fact it isn’t just the bottoms of the feet that give us this type of information. Even the skin on the side of the ankle tells us what’s going on with our body in space by telling us when it’s being stretched.
That’s all neat, but what does it have to do with lived, human experience?
People tend to have more trouble with balance as they age. Poor balance isn’t just the domain of the elderly, but they’ve been alive longer so it becomes more pronounced.
All of these nerve endings that are telling us things about pressure and stretch in our feet and ankles are giving us important information about how our body is interacting with the world. It was never assumed by the body that we would be moving through a perfectly level and flat environment. It’s very important to know how to move through terrain without rolling our ankle or twisting our knee and it matters that we have the option to do so quickly.
So, if I were to step on a raised surface that just supported the outside of my foot, that information would register and my whole body would respond by activating the muscles that would keep me upright with only the outside of my foot supported.
As with most nerve endings the more they are used, the easier they become to use. It’s the nature of nerves that when they are stimulated they get better at transmitting information more quickly and more precisely.
Unfortunately, when they are not used the opposite happens.
In my scenario above were I to step on something that supports only half my foot, if I suffer from a dull and sluggish transmission of this information to the rest of my body, then whatever compensating muscle contraction takes place would be slow and imprecise and I would likely stumble and possibly damage some part of my body.
In order to avoid this unfortunate fate we can deliberately take time to stimulate all of the parts of the foot and create a stronger, more useful nervous system.
I’ll give you some ideas of how to do this, but I want to preface it by saying that there is no wrong way to do this, just start pressing on things and moving your foot around. The only hazard would be if you created large loads before your tissues had time to toughen up. For example, leaping several feet onto unstable surfaces, or walking 10 miles on uneven terrain barefoot. You need to work up to these sorts of things.
- Move the bones of your foot relative to each other. Keep in mind the load that is right for you.
- The simplest start is by getting a smooth rock, maybe about the size of a hens egg and standing on it. Move it around to different parts or your foot so that the bones can move in different ways. This is nice because it’s very precise.
- For more load, walk slowly over uneven terrain for a short distance, focusing your attention on the movement of the bones inside your foot. Try and choose foot positions that give your foot the chance to change its shape.
- Press the bottoms of your feet.
- You can do this with one leg crossed over the other and your thumbs contacting the bottom and side/bottom of your foot. Systematically press your thumbs into the foot. Move over the entire surface of the foot.
- Drag and lift the skin over your foot and ankles.
- Pinch sections of skin and pull them away from your foot. You can even do this on the bottom of the foot, though the tissue is much tougher.
- Put your thumbs or fingertips against the surface of the skin and make slow swirling motions so that you’re dragging the skin with you and creating a stretch sensation. Particularly focus on the skin around the ankles.
If you’re creating sensations (if you feel) then this is doing its job.
After you’ve done one foot try standing up. Focus your attention on your feet and notice how the foot you just worked with differs in sensation from the foot that is in its usual state.
What do you notice?