When you stand still, do you sway a bit? This phenomenon, known as postural sway, affects everyone. But if you rock back and forth like you’re riding bumpy waves in the ocean, that’s called high postural sway.

Postural sway (which includes side-to-side and forward-backward movements) increases when our muscles become weak and physiologic changes occur in our sensory systems—as we age, for example, and with certain medical conditions such as stroke and multiple sclerosis. Not surprisingly, people with high postural sway don’t always have good balance and have been shown to be at increased risk of falling.

To better understand the effects of high postural sway, Finnish scientists decided to take the research a step further to investigate whether this phenomenon increases risk for bone fractures.  

To do this, researchers measured postural sway in 1,568 peri- and postmenopausal women and followed up 15 years later with questionnaires and a review of hospital records to see how many of the women experienced a bone fracture.

Study results: Women with the greatest postural sway were twice as likely to have suffered a fracture than women with the least postural sway. This was true for all types of fractures, including those affecting the wrist, spine and hip.

Even worse, the data showed that women with both high postural sway and low bone mineral density—a hallmark of the brittle bone disease osteoporosis and its precursor osteopenia—were five times more likely to have a fracture of any type and 11 times more likely to have an osteoporotic fracture than women with the highest bone density and least postural sway.

Based on these findings, the researchers identified postural sway as a new, independent risk factor for fracture.

Takeaway: Adding postural sway to the current list of risk factors for bone fractures may help health-care professionals identify women who are at increased risk so that steps can be taken to protect their bone health.

If you suspect that you have high postural sway, get evaluated by a health-care provider trained in postural assessment (such as a physical therapist, personal trainer or primary care provider with advanced education in this specialized area). Good posture training and balance exercises may help lower your fracture risk.

For four simple balance boosters, read here.