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Monday, September 10, 2012 - Avoiding Dangerous Falls Can Keep Seniors Healthy All Winter Long

Avoiding dangerous falls can keep seniors healthy all winter long
By Kevin Berg, M.D.

            One of the caveats of growing older is the increased susceptibly to falling. More often than not, the patients we see have sustained injuries by falling where you’d least expect it ─ on familiar ground such as the home, sidewalk or driveway. An increased risk to seniors who fall is the potential for more serious injuries ─ fractured hips, legs, arms and ankles or head injury ─ which can all require a lengthy recovery process. During office visits with my older patients, I routinely review the risk factors for falls, particularly during these damp autumn days and looking ahead to winter.

Risk factors for geriatric falls

  1. Medical conditions and side effects from medications that affect balance such as blood thinners, high/low blood pressure, vision problems, osteoarthritis and dementia and neurologic conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
  1. Unsafe clothing such as bulky slippers, footwear lacking sole grip guards, and pants, heavy coats or skirts that are too long and cumbersome.
  1. Darkness, even in the familiar confines of inside or outside the home, due to lack of adequate lighting.
  2. Not using mobility support devices such as canes, walkers, scooters and automated “help button” technology.
  3. Ice, rain, and snow are to blame for many falls for everyone. Autumn is no exception ─ wet fallen leaves and early morning frosts can catch anyone off guard.

How to minimize injury immediately after a fall

It is a shock to the nervous system to unexpectedly sustain a fall. As a result, panic can be your first reaction. Do not move or try to get up, which could worsen an injury. If someone is with you, talk with them about what you are feeling and where you may be injured. Ask them to call 911 if you are hurt.

If you are alone, you may be unable to reach a phone. I recommend my patients always wear a pendant emergency device as a back-up. There are many different brands and these tools can be life-saving. After activating the 911 system on one of these devices, remain in place until help arrives. While you wait, try to cover yourself to keep warm. If you feel certain you are not hurt, very slowly rise to your knees, try to locate a heavy support, such as a wall, railing or piece of furniture, to lean on, and gently pull yourself back up.

Finally, to anyone who hits their head as a result of a fall, I strongly recommend you seek immediate medical attention ─ even if you are symptom-free. Internal bleeding in the brain, which can result from even mild impact, may have few, if any, symptoms, but can be fatal.

Diagnosis and treatment services

The OceanFirst Rehabilitation Center at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold offers a comprehensive Balance and Dizziness program specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of people dealing with frequent falls, walking disorders, ongoing feelings of dizziness or vertigo and balance deficits. For more information, call 866-CENTRA7 (236-8727) or visit centrastate.com/rehabilitation-services/balance-and-dizziness.

Dr. Berg is a board-certified physician specializing in family medicine and geriatrics. He is on staff at CentraState Medical Center and can be reached at Family Healthcare at Bartley Corner in Jackson by calling (732) 363-6140 or visiting www.centrastate.com/jackson.