Upstairs, downstairs (well, mostly down the stairs)
March 2, 2015 11:53 AM   Subscribe

This feels the dumbest question, but can you help me get better at taking the stairs? I don't mean motivation to take the stairs, which seems to be what I get when I Google this, I mean literally putting one foot in front of the other quickly, expediently, safely. Has anyone else ever had this problem? Can you suggest exercises to help? Or suggest good stair-taking technique?

The problem:

Walking down the stairs is hard for me and I can't figure out why. When I walk down the stairs (which I do several times a day; I have stairs in my house, at the train station, and at work), I'm really slow and I often think I'm about to lose my balance (I get scared, I flail, I grasp the railing for dear life, sometimes I yell). Sometimes I do actually lose my balance and fall, but not that often, really. It's terrifying and I also feel like an idiot. Plus I have to keep telling people to pass me on the stairs because I'm so slow. I feel like I have to think very carefully about what I'm doing with my feet and ankles and I analyze the possibilities but can't figure out a good technique.

What might be causing it:

(Really, danged if I know, but just in case):

1. I hurt my ankle badly ten years ago and was in a cast for 6 weeks. I *think* I noticed this starting after that but am not sure. My ankle's still not "right", but most of the time it's just a mild twinge of pain.

2. My toes are arthritic and I can't bend the joints in my big toes at all.

3. I have always had poor balance, even when I was doing ballet five days a week as a kid.

4. I have normal/low blood pressure but do get dizzy on standing sometimes.

5. My husband thinks it's because I'm looking at my feet. I've tried not looking at my feet but am too scared to take more than a step.

Other: overall healthy, female, late 30s. Going up stairs is easier but not easy and sometimes I get a wobble. I have no idea if this is mental, physical, or just poor technique. Any ideas? No one ever seems to know what I'm talking about if I mention this, including my friend who's an occupational therapist.
posted by chocotaco to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've spent most of my adult life being afraid of falling down the stairs, thanks to two really nasty falls. Mine is fear-based, where yours sounds more like a coordination issue, so I don't know if this will help, but what works best for me is being distracted. When I'm thinking intently about other things - being late for a train, getting dinner on the stove, a tricky project I'm working on, chatting on the phone with a friend, whatever - I'm at the bottom of the stairs in a flash, before I have time to worry. I find that when I'm paying attention specifically to going down the stairs, that's when I get worried and wobbly, and I notice all the things that could go wrong - the way the tread of my sneakers catches on the stair, the way the cat runs in front of me, the way whatever I'm carrying throws off my balance. (I don't know how I learned to not pay attention, though.)
posted by okayokayigive at 12:00 PM on March 2, 2015


Do you wear glasses? I'm much better at stairs when I'm wearing contact lenses.
posted by theraflu at 12:01 PM on March 2, 2015

Best answer: It sounds like more of a phobia than an actual physiological problem, maybe? I wonder if you could desensitize yourself by practicing at home - start at the bottom of the staircase and practicing just stepping up and down one step, without looking. Then build up to two, then three, etc. allowing yourself to calm down in between each try. Looking at your feet is disorienting; most adults look forward or at the bottom of the stairwell when going down stairs.
posted by Yellow Silver Maple at 12:01 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

This sounds awful! I'm sorry you feel so badly about it too.

Definitely make an appointment with an actual physical therapist AND occupational therapist. I think someone working with you, who isn't making fun or disbelieving it's a thing, will help you get through it.

Is it possible it's an inner ear issue? I wonder if you have a touch of vertigo and it's most apparent on the stairs.
posted by barnone at 12:02 PM on March 2, 2015

Remain in contact with the handrail. I have a problem walking down escalator steps--the distractions, the odd step height, the lines in the treads all add up to make me stumble. I don't always hold the handrail, but I find that lightly brushing my hand against it keeps me focused and safe.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:05 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First thing I thought of was a problem with proprioception (basically, knowing where your body parts are in relationship to each other and to the outside world). For example, maybe you can't mentally "feel" your feet in relationship to the steps and that causes you to miss steps or lose your balance. Of course you'd be scared of stairs if you'd fallen a few times!

Physical therapy might help, and/or a neurological work up.
posted by desjardins at 12:06 PM on March 2, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Wow, I could have written this question. I have poor balance, too, and occasionally bad foot-eye coordination, and I know that's part of it. Personally it's gotten worse for me since I took a hard fall down a whole flight of stairs last year (one of those cartoony feet over head over feet things) after a mis-step on the top. Somehow miraculously I wasn't hurt, but I've been (even more) skittish on the stairs since then, so I know a large part of it is psychological.

Things that help:

1) all of my shoes are pretty practical, but flat, rubber soles are important
2) not looking at my feet but keeping an eye a few steps out
3) having both hands ready to brace myself, one hovering over the railing and the other just kind of prophylactically in front of me
4) saying "step step step step step" steadily in my head. It helps me think less about the individual foot stepping motion and more about the whole process so I don't get tripped up (literally) on the minutiae
posted by phunniemee at 12:06 PM on March 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are physical therapists who specialize in balance & coordination (I saw one last year for trouble after ear surgery affected my vision). One of the things they deal with is proprioception, so you might have some luck with that.
posted by suelac at 12:27 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

What kind of shoes do you wear? As a teenager I was skipping down any and all kinds of stairs at a pretty decent speed. Years later I noticed that I was walking down stairs and doing so much more slowly and deliberately. I was blaming inactive lifestyle but it turns out that I now work in a professional job and wear work appropriate footwear. Years ago I lived in trainers, walking sandals etc. I can still skip down stairs very comfortably in trainers. So whilst it sounds as if you may be a bit scared also consider how safe you feel on your feet in general and how well your footwear fits you etc.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:50 PM on March 2, 2015

I have poor proprioception and a leg injury and have fallen down stairs in the past (and hurt myself quite badly in the process). I also have that low blood pressure / orthostatic hypotension thing. What I do:

-Avoid using stairs right after standing up to let any bit of dizziness pass
-Wear shoes with good tread and no significant heel, 1" or less
-Grip the handrail or feel the wall with one hand at all times
-Exercises to improve my balance like standing on one leg for a while

But that's enough to get me up and down and it sounds like you have much more serious problems. Please see a doctor, then a physical or occupational therapist (one who's not your friend), I cannot imagine this is not medical in some way.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:58 PM on March 2, 2015

Response by poster: Wow, thank you all! It's nice to know I'm not alone, and that people have ideas. I can't believe I missed the previous question, which looks packed with good answers, too. Updates: I do wear glasses, I wear mostly flats at work but, um, rubber-soled snowboots the rest of the time, since I live in the land of ice and snow. It's better with the boots but not alleviated. I've had the experience of having flats or heels fall off my feet while walking upstairs, which was pretty disorienting. (My heels are narrow and shoes never fit).
posted by chocotaco at 1:07 PM on March 2, 2015

Glasses--have you had your prescription checked in the last two years? Do you have full lenses or some trendy little square lenses that make you rely on your peripheral vision? Do you have multiple pairs that you wear on different days? That could definitely be part of it. If you have contact lenses, I'd try that and see if it helps. I know my depth perception is whacked when I switch glasses, even with the same prescription.

But I still say doctor.
posted by epanalepsis at 1:26 PM on March 2, 2015

Best answer: With the balance thing -- do you lean forwards at all to "see" the stairs? You're moving your center of gravity in front of your feet and throwing yourself off balance. Instead, try leaning backwards slightly. This keeps your center of gravity above your feet and, if you do fall, you can lean backwards so friction stops you (rather than tumbling down the stairs).
posted by DoubleLune at 2:27 PM on March 2, 2015

Also this question previously may help.
posted by DoubleLune at 2:29 PM on March 2, 2015

Best answer: I have the same thing but I did find one kind of weird solution. Despite having tiny feet, I always feel like I'm going to miss the tread/pitch head over heels and tumble down the stairs. My solution is to literally face the wall, and walk down sideways. I don't know why this works, it seems far more tricky than just going down (especially because I have to cross my legs to get to the next tread) but I can do the stairs in half the time. I'm too embarrassed to do it where other people can see, but I easily zip up and down five flights of stairs in the empty stairwell at work.
posted by valoius at 2:47 PM on March 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Can you see at all without your glasses? It is impossible for me to successfully navigate stairs while wearing my glasses--I think it has to do with the frame cutting my field of vision in half and kind of distorting my perception of distance. I do just fine when I'm not wearing them. If you can take your glasses off and still see safely that would be my recommendation.
posted by stellaluna at 4:16 PM on March 2, 2015

Do the stairs in your house have a railing? Holding on to a railing really helps. You can have one put in if you don't have one.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:17 PM on March 2, 2015

Best answer: Hello my shoe-dropping, stair-hating twin! (I have the narrow heel problem too! I 100% understand how this is really disconcerting.)

In addition to what I wrote in my followup to the earlier question, another technique I have employed, as MrMoonpie suggests above, is the light brushing of the handrail, or really any light contact with the rail or escalator wall. No, my elbow isn't going to grab the wall or railing if I fall on the stairs, but something about having a slight continuous contact helps "ground" me and lets me feel more stable.

Recently I have started taking Pilates and I think working my core muscles has been helpful for general balance and stability. As long as you've checked out the neurological and vision basics as per seeing your doctor, then perhaps work on balance poses and core strengthening will help in addition to these other stair hacks. Good luck, and I hope some of these tips help!
posted by NikitaNikita at 7:33 PM on March 2, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! I marked some of the answers that I thought I could try right away. If they don't help I'll look into some of the medical ones. Plus the first mention of "proprioception", since now I have something to google! I already tried going down sideways, which helped a lot but is not viable in all situations. I do usually use the handrail already but can make more of effort to always do it.
posted by chocotaco at 6:08 AM on March 3, 2015

I have a friend who says she always feels unsteady on her feet and a doctor told her she has very loose ligaments, so she literally IS unsteady- her ankles wobble. Not sure what she's supposed to do about it- she in particular just avoids heels since they make it worse. Just wanted to suggest that the problem might be your feet, not your technique.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 12:07 PM on April 8, 2015

One more thought- if you have weak quadriceps muscles, going downstairs feels more out-of-control because weak quads can't control your descent, so you end up kind of "falling" down onto each step instead of being smoothly lowered down. To lower down gently your quad muscles have to release smoothly and slowly, and if they're weak they just kind of give up and drop you. You know how old people kind of sit halfway and then fall down on their bums when they sit down into a chair? Same muscle deficit.

So strengthening your quadriceps might help. Specifically you want your quads to learn to move slowly and smoothly while they are managing your body weight. Here's a squat exercise video that might help; and split lunges are good too. Focus on lowering yourself slowly- much slower than the people on these videos (like count to 5 as you lower, then pause, then rise up on a 5-count as well). You won't be able to do as many repetitions if you go that slow, but you'll be teaching your muscles how to work with better control.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 5:07 PM on April 8, 2015

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