Falls can diminish your ability to lead an active and independent life. About one third of people over the age of 65 and almost half of people over the age of 80 will fall at least once this year. There usually are several reasons for a fall. Physical therapists can help you reduce your risk of falling by:
- Assessing your risk of falling
- Helping you make your home as safe as possible
- Educating you about the medical risk factors linked to falls
- Designing individualized exercises and balance training
- Working with other health care professionals and community services to create programs for people who want to reduce their risk of falling
What Are Falls?
The reasons for falls are complex and include:
- Being 80 years old or older
- Leg muscle weakness
- Difficulty with balance or walking
- Vision problems (cataracts, macular degeneration, wearing bifocals)
- Medical conditions that limit your ability to get around, such as Parkinson disease, stroke, or diabetes
- Conditions that cause confusion, such as dementia and Alzheimer disease
- Taking more than 4 medications at the same time or psychoactive medications (such as sedatives or antidepressants)
- Using a cane or other walking device
- Home hazards (throw rugs, pets underfoot)
- Low blood pressure
The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk. The factors associated with the greatest fall risk are:
- A history of previous falls
- Balance problems
- Leg muscle weakness
- Vision problems
- Taking more than 4 medications or psychoactive medications
- Difficulty with walking
How Can Our Physical Therapists Help?
If you are worried about falling or if you recently had a fall, our physical therapists can conduct a brief check (“screening”) of your fall risk. If the screening shows that you are at risk, the therapist will perform a thorough evaluation, including:
- A review of your medical history
- A review of your medications
- A simple vision test
- A home safety assessment
- A simple screen of your thinking abilities
- A check of your heart rate
- Blood pressure measurements while you change positions (from sitting to standing)
- Feet and footwear assessment
- Assessment of any nervous system disorders, such as stroke or Parkinson disease
- Measure your leg strength, using simple tests such as timing how long it takes you to risk from a chair
- Determine how quickly and steadily you walk
- Assess your balance—for instance, by having you stand on one leg or rise from a chair and walk
- Use special tests to measure your balance
Based on the evaluation results, our physical therapist will design an exercise and training program to improve your balance and strength. A recent systematic review of many published studies found that exercise-based programs in the home or in group settings are effective in preventing falls. These programs are especially effective when balance exercises are performed in a standing position without using much arm support.
Balance training has been shown to be an important and effective part of falls prevention. Your physical therapist will design exercises that challenge your ability to keep your balance, including such exercises as single-leg standing.
Walking and Moving
When people walk very slowly or are unsteady, they are at risk of falling. Our physical therapist can improve your walking ability by having you do such activities as:
- Dance steps
- Walking in circles
- “Figure 8” exercises to strengthen the core abdominal muscles that help stabilize your body
- Obstacle courses
Doing More Than One Thing at the Same Time—Safely
Older adults who have difficulty walking and talking at the same time are at a higher risk of falling. To help increase your safety during daily activities, your physical therapist can design a “dual-task” training program. This kind of training will challenge you to maintain walking speed while you do another task, such as counting backwards, engaging in a conversation, or carrying a bag of groceries.
Strengthening exercises are a key element of fall prevention when they are done in conjunction with balance training. Our physical therapists will design strengthening exercises that focus on your leg and the muscles used in maintaining posture.
Aerobic exercise is physical exercise of relatively low intensity and long duration; it can help improve almost every aspect of your health. Walking is one of the safest forms of aerobic exercise, no matter what kind of problem you have. Once you have begun your strengthening and balance program, your physical therapist will know when you’re ready to start aerobic exercise. Depending on your ability, the therapist might have you do three 30-minute walking sessions each week.
Our physical therapists will take the time to explain to you how to best manage your own risks for falling. Our therapists also may talk to you about the best activities for you to do to maintain your quality of life.
It will be important for you to talk with your physical therapist about any fear of falling that you have. Your therapist will work with you to determine whether there are activities you should avoid. Your therapist also will work with you to determine whether your fear may be unfounded and whether there are activities that you should be doing to keep strong and help your balance.
Several fall prevention programs are being promoted by the Injury Prevention and Control Center of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with the Administration on Aging. These programs help people:
- Reduce their fear of falling
- Set goals for increasing their physical activity
- Make their homes more safe
- Do more exercise to increase strength and balance
These programs often are led by volunteer coaches. Our physical therapists may be involved in setting up one or these programs and can help you find programs in your area that would be best for you.