Tips & Techniques

Stopping Falls Before They Happen

Dana Tress 
September 8, 2023
Stopping Falls Before They Happen

Falls are an extremely common occurrence in our older adult population.  They frequently result in catastrophic injuries and death.  One in four adults over the age of 65 fall every year.  Falls are the number one cause of accidental death and traumatic brain injuries (including concussions) in this population.  We tend to accept falling as a normal part of aging, but this should not be the case.  A majority of falls can be prevented by taking a few simple preventative measures and precautions.

Why Do We Fall?

Falling can happen for many reasons.  Of course, they can often be related to an accident such as tripping over an uneven sidewalk, misjudging the depth of a step, or slipping on some ice.  When events such as these happen, people may end up on the ground because of an immediate injury.  But other times, people end up falling to the ground because they simply did not have the proper balance strategies to prevent the fall from happening in the first place.  

Maintaining (and catching) our balance is a complex process that has to occur within milliseconds.  Our brain has to rapidly gather data from our body’s visual, vestibular (inner ear), and somatosensory systems.  This information is then processed in the balance centers of the brain.  The brain then has to relay a “plan of action” to your muscles to move you in a way that would keep your center of mass over your base of support to prevent a fall from occurring.  

The fascinating thing about all of this is that balance is a skill.  That means it is learned.  So, just like we learn how to play a sport, play an instrument, or solve complex math problems, we can actually learn to have better balance.  And, learning to have better balance means that we reduce our risk of falls.  Think about this.  As children, we practice things that challenge our balance all of the time.  We run, jump, roll, skip, flip, walk on curbs and even hang upside down.  All of these things children do to play helps to build their balance system.  But, what do we do as adults to maintain (or build) or balance system?  Often, we are not doing much of anything to work on this because we are busy with work, kids and other obligations.

Not challenging our balance system as we age means that our balance will decline as we age.


What Risk Factors Lead to Falls and What You Can Do About Them:


Risk Factor #1:  Muscle Weakness

If we do not work to maintain or grow muscle mass, the typical adult will lose 40% of their muscle strength by age 70.  And, how do you hold yourself up if you start to fall if your muscles are really weak?  Strength training throughout the lifespan is so important to ensure that you do not lose muscle strength as you get older.  And staying strong will help prevent those falls from happening!  Watch a video to see some of our favorite body weight exercises to help stay strong (no equipment needed!): 

Risk Factor #2:  Low Vitamin D

Having low Vitamin D levels in your body can raise your risk of developing osteopenia and osteoporosis.  Having reduced bone density can make your body more unstable and increase your overall risk of falls (and bone fractures).  Make sure you have your Vitamin D levels checked by your doctor and discuss appropriate use of supplements if your levels are low to keep those bones healthy and strong!

Risk Factor #3:  Impaired Balance

This one seems pretty obvious.  If your balance is poor, you have an increased risk of falling.  But, like we discussed earlier in the article, balance is a skill that can be learned and developed at any age.  Challenging your balance is the best way to improve your balance.  Simple things like trying to stand on one foot or walk heel-to-toe along a straight line (like you are on a tightrope) are some powerful ways to improve balance.


Risk Factor #4:  Prescription Medications

Taking more than 5 prescription medications correlates with a higher risk of falling in adults.  Some medications change how quickly the brain will react in different situations (such as anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antipsychotics and opioids).  Others can cause drops in blood pressure, blurred vision and fatigue (such as muscle relaxants, antihypertensives, and antihistamines).  While you may require these medications, it is always beneficial to occasionally review all of your medications with your doctor to ensure they are all still needed and appropriate for you.


Risk Factor #5:  Poor Vision

Most of us are dependent on visual input to maintain good balance.  Having poor vision or chronic eye diseases can definitely impact balance.  Be sure to see your eye doctor regularly to maintain good eye health.  It is also important to discuss prescriptive lenses as well.  Sometimes progressive lenses can lead to difficulty with depth perception in individuals with poor balance.  Make sure your glasses are the right kind for your needs.


Risk Factor #6:  Foot Problems

Our feet and ankle are our first line of defense in correcting our balance and maintaining postural stability.  Having foot weakness, foot pain, or poor sensation in your feet can lead to balance problems.  Wearing proper footwear, maintaining good foot health and strength, and working with your doctor to maintain healthy feet will have a direct, positive impact on your balance and ability to negate falls.


Risk Factor #7:  Environmental Hazards

Throw rugs, loose railings on the stairs, slippery bathtub floors, and cords running across a floor are all things that we can encounter in our homes, workplaces or other environments that can easily lead to falls.  Inspecting your home (and other places you spend a lot of time) for these types of risk factors and then removing or fixing them is a great way to prevent those falls from happening.


As you can see, a little bit of proactive work can help reduce your risk for falls before they ever occur.  You can also always work with a physical therapist to learn appropriate exercises to do to help you improve your balance.  As always, please contact us if you have any questions!

Meet the Author
Dana Tress, PT, MS, CEAS, AIB-CON is a physical therapist specializing in the management of concussion, balance dysfunction, headaches and dizziness in Crystal Lake, Illinois at Smith Physical Therapy Balance + Concussion Center, an award winner in concierge physical therapy services for McHenry County and surrounding regions.
You were made to move!