November 2014 – “Don’t let falls bring you down this winter!”

Every year, November brings an intense chill and the beginnings of a very snowy few months. Although we’re Wisconsinites and are used to this weather, it is important to realize that these weather hazards bring other hazards as well.

This month, I’d like to talk about a very serious topic during cold, icy months: fall awareness and prevention. Slick ice and snow can cause falls, but remember that there are steps you can take to prevent a fall from happening.

Here are a few things you can do when you walk outside during the cold months:

  • Put a substance such as salt, snow melt, or sand on your sidewalk, driveway, porch, or any other area surrounding your home. This helps prevent slipping when you walk.
  • Wear shoes with good grips. Avoid wearing shoes with slick soles, as this heightens your chance for slipping on ice or snow.
  • Use railings when they are available.

However, there are other places besides the outdoors during the winter that can cause falls. In addition to the obvious cold-weather hazards, I’d like to highlight a few hazards that you may not recognize as much when you think of preventing falls.

It’s important to realize that falls can happen inside of the house as well as outside. Make sure that your home has proper lighting that ensures good visibility. Beware of the hazards that some household items can pose, such as loose cords or area rugs. If you often get out of bed during the night, make sure that your floors are clear of these potential hazards. Even if you don’t usually wake up during the night, be sure that in case of an emergency, you have a well-lit walking path that is clear of any obstacles; you never know when you’ll need to leave the house quickly.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent these obstacles in your home:

  • Hide cords with plastic or rubber covers. You can find these at any home improvement or hardware store.
  • Smooth out rugs to ensure there are no bumps in the middle, and do not keep rugs with edges that roll upward. As a general rule, always scan your home for appropriate rugs. If you have a rug in your home that is simply decorative, it is best to remove it to eliminate the falls risk.
  • Put nightlights in dark areas, especially rooms with a lot of furniture or obstacles.

All of these outdoor and indoor hazards are important to be aware of and avoid, as they can result in severe injury.

Moving away from discussing falls risk areas that are all around us every day, I also want to explain the various balance systems that are built into our own bodies and play a significant role in our sense of balance and overall stability. The first system is a small organ inside our inner ear called the vestibule, which is a key contributor to our balance awareness. When the vestibule is not functioning correctly, it can lead to poor sense of balance, dizziness, and an instability called vertigo. Next, our sense of vision is also a key player in balance awareness, which is why it is important to have proper lighting or visual aids in use when needed to see your environment for safety. Our final balance system that is built within us is the nerve receptor system in our joints and muscles. All three systems can be enhanced and improved with continuous practice and by “exercising” them after a fall or injury. Altogether, it is important to ensure that these parts of our body are working as well as possible and can respond quickly to potential hazards.

If you do have an injury caused by a fall, please remember that your physical therapist is always available to help. Through physical therapy, rehabilitation is indeed possible, and physical therapists can also help to monitor and manage aspects of your body that can help prevent falls in the future. In addition, simple education and practice can benefit patients by enhancing flexibility, improving general balance, and correcting vestibular and dizziness issues.

As a general rule, just remember that as the weather changes, you should always be aware of the possible threats that go along with the changes. Talk to your physical therapist if you would like more information regarding how to prevent falls and improve balance, or discuss any other topic; we are always here to help. Have a fun and safe holiday season!