Fear of falling is a natural and near-universal instinct – with good reason. Falls can cause serious injuries, including head trauma, shoulder and forearm fractures, spine fractures, pelvic fractures, and hip fractures. And although falls can happen to people of any age, older people fall more often and are much more likely to suffer serious injuries from falls.
“Unfortunately, older people who are very afraid of falling are more likely to fall,” says Almaas Shaikh, MD, FACS, medical director of trauma at Mission Hospital, where falls are a leading cause of trauma. Mission Hospital’s trauma experts treat about 1,300 fall patients a year. “Serious fall injuries can lead to lengthy hospitalization and a decrease in mobility. Over time, the loss of independent living skills frequently results in the person relocating to a nursing home or an assisted living facility. We help fall patients get better but we also want to prevent falls from happening in the first place. Educating people about the steps they can take to be safer and giving them the tools to build their self-confidence are extremely important.”
Dr. Shaikh says everyone should know the common causes of falls. Poor vision or hearing, low blood pressure, muscle weakness and chronic health conditions such as heart disease and dementia increase the likelihood of falling, as do poor lighting in the home and side effects of medication.
“Once a person knows and follows the basics of fall prevention, they are empowered to lead their normal lifestyle without letting a healthy respect for falls turn into a debilitating fear,” Dr. Shaikh says.
Dr. Shaikh shares the following tips for preventing falls:
See your primary care physician. Certain medications can have side effects such as dizziness or sleepiness that can lead to falls. Go over all of the medicines you’re taking, including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements. People who are taking four or more medications are more likely to fall, as are people who’ve changed their medicine within the past two weeks.
Your doctor may also want to give you a TUG test. TUG stands for Timed Up and Go, and it consists of having you take simple timed actions that measure your balance, your ability to go from a sitting to standing position, and your walking ability.
If your doctor thinks you would benefit from additional therapy outside of the doctor’s office, ask for a referral to a physical therapist or occupational therapist who can design a program to improve your mobility.
Wear sturdy shoes. Wearing proper footwear every day is one of the easiest fall prevention steps you can take. Safe shoes are ones that won’t cause you to trip or slip. Sneakers and walking shoes with slide-resistant soles offer comfort and grip. If you must wear heels, wear low ones and be extra careful to properly plant your feet. For casual wear around the house, instead of slippers with a flap that can catch under your feet and make you stumble, wear non-skid socks with sticky dots on the sole.
Remove fall hazards. It’s a lot harder to avoid tripping and falling if your home’s hallways, stairways, and living areas are cluttered. Electrical cords should not stretch across paths where people walk. Tables and chairs shouldn’t extend where you might run into a leg or an edge. Carpets and floorboards must lay flush and smooth. Don’t store things where you need a stepladder to reach them. Don’t use ladders outside your home without assistance. Think of other common sense ways to keep your walkways clear and your home hazard-free.
Keep your home well-lit. If you can’t see where you’re walking, you’re bound to trip, slide, or fall. Night lights that turn on automatically will help you get to the bathroom or kitchen safely. Light switches that glow are easier to find in the dark. Your living area lights should be bright enough to give you a clear view of where you’re going or what you’re reaching for.
Take advantage of assistive devices. Don’t forego the help provided by the many assistive devices designed to keep you on your feet. Canes and walkers give you added stability when you walk, and there are many fall prevention items that be installed in different areas of your house: stair railings; seats and bars for the toilet, tub, or shower; reachers that can grab things from shelves and floors; and many more.
A fall can be a major life-changing event. Don’t let a fall take away the ability of someone you love to lead an independent life. Attend a fall prevention program like the Keep Your Feet Planted program presented free by the Mission Hospital Trauma Center, where our community’s seniors and their loved ones learn strategies for a fall-free lifestyle. To learn more, call Mission Hospital Trauma Outreach Services at (949) 364-7754.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.