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Health & Balance

Just Clumsy, or Something Serious?

Experts explain when being clumsy is a sign of medical trouble, or just plain klutziness.
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

We've all done a pretty good impression of Inspector Clousseau at one time or another. Knocking over coffee cups, dropping keys, tripping over rugs -- sometimes life feels like a slapstick comedy, and you're the star.

Can klutziness be cured? If episodes of clumsiness happen more frequently, how can you tell if it's something serious -- or just a temporary case of the fumbles? Our experts tell us what to look for (and not trip over) as we explore this common problem.

Coordination: An Overview

As clumsy as you may feel, you're more coordinated than you think. It takes a genuine miracle of synchronized muscles, bones, and nerves just to get up and walk across the room.

"Coordination of the body is an extremely complicated process that involves input from both motor and sensory systems," explains Taylor Harrison, MD, clinical instructor in the neuromuscular division of the Emory University department of neurology in Atlanta.

Here's how our body parts work together:

  • Our eyes provide a constant stream of information about our surroundings and our position in space.
  • The brain and nerves are our command-and-control "wiring," carrying the messages on how and where to move down to the muscles.
  • The cerebellum is the part of the brain that specializes in coordination and balance. About the size of an orange, it's located under the brain at the back of the head. The cerebellum "talks" constantly to other parts of the brain to maintain balance, posture, and fluid movements.
  • Muscles and bones carry out the instructions transmitted by nerves, creating movement.

Normally these systems work together, playing off each other like an orchestra performing a symphony in perfect tune. "Problems in any of these areas may give rise to problems with coordination," says Harrison. Some of the most common culprits are:

  • Poor vision
  • Strokes or head injuries, especially to the cerebellum
  • Arthritis
  • Muscle weakness
  • Inactivity
  • Infections or illnesses
  • Fatigue and stress
  • Medicines
  • Alcohol and drug use

All of these causes of clumsiness can be treated or reversed completely, so it's important to eliminate them as possible contributors. Your doctor can help you with this.

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