CATES: Prevent falls, one of the major causes of trauma in US

A few weeks ago, my stepmom died. She had some complicated chronic medical conditions, and her health was such that she became increasingly frail over the last few years. Both a result and a contributor to her frailty was falls. It became such a vicious cycle, as she would get more frail, she would fall, which then caused her to become even more frail.

As she became more frail, it became harder for her to heal, and so when she fell she would have more serious injuries. It was one of the contributing factors for her becoming bed bound. As a nurse, I know the devastation falls can bring, but as a daughter, I got to experience the daily worry of someone I love falling and seriously injuring themselves.

My stepmom broke multiple bones in the last few years, she had constant pain resulting from fall related injuries. I can say without reservation, there are few things I look on with more dread and with more pure hatred than falls.

When most people think about falls, they think about falls from a height. Things like falling on stairs, falling off a chair, falling from a roof or a ladder. Those falls happen and they can result in very serious injuries. But most falls, and in fact one of the major causes of trauma in the U.S. and in Texas, is not those type of falls.

The falls that are by far the most common and cause the most injuries are same-level falls. Falls caused by slips and trips, falls caused by poor lighting and/or poor vision, falls caused by weakness, and falls caused by medication side effects.

Same-level falls can be an issue for everyone, but they can be especially difficult on older people.  Balance is one of the senses that can deteriorate as people age, so when an older person gets “off balance” because their foot gets caught on a loose floor rug for instance, they are much more likely to fall because it is harder for that person to correct their balance quickly.

If you add to that osteoporosis and other byproducts of aging like thinner skin and less muscle mass, it makes it easy to understand why falls can happen more often and cause more injuries when they do.

This is why fall prevention strategies are so important. The National Institutes on Aging recommends several strategies to prevent falls. First, make sure you are staying active.

Many people stop being active because they are afraid of falling. But that is exactly the opposite of what they should do. Activity, especially regular exercise, helps build muscle mass, maintains the sense of balance, and strengthens bones, all of which make a person less likely to fall and if they do fall, they are less likely to be injured.

Being inactive actually makes a person more likely to fall and more likely to be injured because inactivity makes them more fragile.

Discuss side effects of your medications with your doctor or pharmacist, and if you experience side effects like sleepiness, dizziness, or weakness, discuss alternatives with your doctor.

Sleep is important. Tired and sleepy people are more likely to fall. Limit alcohol intake because that affects balance and reflexes. There is a correlation with alcohol consumption and higher rates of hip fracture.

Stand up slowly. Standing up quickly can make some people lightheaded, which increases their risk for falling. Use an assistive device if you feel unsteady when you walk. Before purchasing such a device however, speak to a physical therapist, your health care provider, or other specialist to make sure you get the right size and type of device that will help you be the most active.

Be very careful of wet or icy surfaces.

Choose your shoes carefully. Non-skid, rubber soled, low-heeled shoes that fully support your feet are less likely to cause a fall, and will often help prevent a fall. Do not walk around in socks or shoes with slippery soles. Make sure you have good lighting and remove tripping hazards. Finally, always tell your doctor if you have fallen between visits, even if you didn’t have an injury. Your doctor can suggest ways of helping make sure that fall is not repeated.

If you do fall, try to stay calm. Take several deep breaths and take a few moments before trying to get back up to get over the shock of falling. Make sure you stay where you are if you feel like you have sustained any sort of injury.

Getting up with an injury can make an injury worse. If you think you can get up without help, roll onto your side, and rest again for a few seconds. Get up on your hands and knees and then crawl to a sturdy chair and use that to help you get fully upright.

If you are unsure, call for help from others in the area or call 911. If you are alone, try to get into a comfortable position until help arrives. Mobile phones are great to carry when you are alone.  There are also several emergency response options available as well for people who are frequently alone.