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Just Clumsy, or Something Serious?

Experts explain when being clumsy is a sign of medical trouble, or just plain klutziness.

A Gardener's Growing Problem

Madeline, a 68-year-old woman, loves to garden. Recently she felt her right hand get heavy and numb while planting flowers. She said it felt like it went dead on her. This lasted only a few minutes before returning completely to normal. She remembered an almost identical episode about a year ago.

Diagnosis: transient ischemic attack (TIA), or "mini-stroke."

"This is serious," says Harrison, because TIAs make a "real" stroke more likely in the future. "Identifying risk factors for stroke, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking," and treating those risk factors, will reduce the risk of stroke, adds Harrison.

Initial symptoms of stroke and TIA can be the same.The American Stroke Association lists these warning signs of a possible stroke:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding.
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination.
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

Call for emergency medical help at the first sign of those symptoms. Don't wait to see if they go away and don't judge for yourself how bad they are.

Can a Klutz Be Cured?

While it's necessary to rule out medical causes of clumsiness, the vast majority of people with coordination problems are medically "normal." What about the millions of us who are just tired of bumping into walls and banging shins on coffee tables? Can a normal (but clumsy) person improve his or her coordination? In other words, can a klutz be cured?

The answer is yes, according to Jim Buskirk, a physical therapist and co-founder of the Dizziness and Balance Center in Chicago. "The same techniques that we use to help people with strokes can be used to enhance performance in people without disabilities."

Buskirk uses these techniques to help athletes like members of the Chicago Wolves, a professional hockey team, improve eye-hand and eye-foot coordination. "A lot of it is vision training," Buskirk says, as "when athletes say in interviews, 'I'm seeing the ball better.'"

The key is exercises which give a workout to the vision and balance circuits. They are called "vestibulo-ocular reflex (VOR) exercises." Simply put, the VOR is made up of the connections between your eyes and brain that help you track objects. Eye-hand coordination depends on the VOR.VOR exercises are proven to help improve performance in brain-injured patients. In normal people, the benefits, if any, are much harder to measure. A physical therapist can provide tools or exercises designed to develop the VOR, and methods are available on the Internet.

Good old-fashioned exercise may be the best cure for the common klutz, says Harrison. "Individuals with coordination problems may see improvement after regular exercise in dancing, aerobics, or even yoga or tai chi," which emphasize balance. "Experiment with different activities before finding one that's right for you," he adds.

Published Sept. 18, 2006.

Reviewed on September 18, 2006

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