Background: Gait and balance impairments may increase the risk of falls, the leading cause of accidental death in the elderly population. Fall-related injuries constitute a serious public health problem associated with high costs for society as well as human suffering. A rapid step is the most important protective postural strategy, acting to recover equilibrium and prevent a fall from initiating. It can arise from large perturbations, but also frequently as a consequence of volitional movements. We propose to use a novel water-based training program which includes specific perturbation exercises that will target the stepping responses that could potentially have a profound effect in reducing risk of falling. We describe the water-based balance training program and a study protocol to evaluate its efficacy (Trial registration number #NCT00708136).
Methods/design: The proposed water-based training program involves use of unpredictable, multi-directional perturbations in a group setting to evoke compensatory and volitional stepping responses. Perturbations are made by pushing slightly the subjects and by water turbulence, in 24 training sessions conducted over 12 weeks. Concurrent cognitive tasks during movement tasks are included. Principles of physical training and exercise including awareness, continuity, motivation, overload, periodicity, progression and specificity were used in the development of this novel program. Specific goals are to increase the speed of stepping responses and improve the postural control mechanism and physical functioning. A prospective, randomized, cross-over trial with concealed allocation, assessor blinding and intention-to-treat analysis will be performed to evaluate the efficacy of the water-based training program. A total of 36 community-dwelling adults (age 65-88) with no recent history of instability or falling will be assigned to either the perturbation-based training or a control group (no training). Voluntary step reaction times and postural stability using stabiliogram diffusion analysis will be tested before and after the 12 weeks of training.
Discussion: This study will determine whether a water-based balance training program that includes perturbation exercises, in a group setting, can improve speed of voluntary stepping responses and improve balance control. Results will help guide the development of more cost-effective interventions that can prevent the occurrence of falls in the elderly.