Physical Therapists Boost Falls Prevention Programs as our Nation Quickly Ages

July 10th, 2016

This year, one-third of all Americans 65 years old and older will experience a fall. Some will quickly brush off the dirt and go about their day, but others won’t be so lucky. Darryl Elliott physical therapist and owner of Elliott Physical Therapy believes falls are preventable and advocates for an annual physical therapy check up to avoid catastrophic injury. The physical therapy profession has long been involved in fall-prevention efforts, guiding our seniors to ambulate safely, maintain mobility longer, and be more independent. Elliott urges, “Do not ignore the following warning signs. If you find yourself relying on handrails to negotiate stairs, having difficulty navigating dimly lit rooms or taking smaller steps when walking it is time to get evaluated by a physical therapist.”

Falls rank among the top burdens on our healthcare system—with $34 billion shelled out for fall-related injuries in 2013 alone—and threaten the health of our nation. Falls land a member of our nation’s elderly population in the emergency department every 13 seconds, and every 20 minutes an older adult dies from fall-related trauma, reports a survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering.

Moderate to severe injuries incurred during a fall can lead to further health declines and loss of independence among our seniors. A team approach with a solid foundation of communication is crucial to adequately prepare for the steady stream of baby boomers crossing the 65-year-old threshold. As part of a medical team, physical therapists are trained to identify each patient’s risk factors, provide education and preventive strategies, and address impairments. The biggest risk factors for a fall include balance/strength impairments, medication interactions, safety issues in the home and community, and visual impairments.

A new study published in The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society in February 2016 titled “Exercise and Fall Prevention: Narrowing the Research-to-Practice Gap and Enhancing Integration of Clinical and Community Practice,” reinforces the premise that falls are preventable with risk assessment and exercises that incorporate elements of balance, gait, and strength training. In fact, the study says, exercise has been shown to reduce the incidence of falls by up to 40%.

Janet Ma, PT, DPT of Elliott Physical Therapy advises, “Physical therapy that consists of core strengthening and lower extremity exercises combined with balance training is an excellent solution for fall prevention. Another very simple and effective way to prevent and reduce the risk of falls is being aware of where your body is going to land. The majority of falls happen when someone is going to sit down because they believe that the chair or bed is closer than it actually is. A good tip is to back up completely until you feel the back of your legs touching the chair, reach back for any armrests or the seat, and then sit down. That way you’re guaranteed to land in the chair and not on the ground, thus putting yourself at a decreased risk of injury and falls.”

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society study also reveals some of the evidence-to-practice challenges in addressing this global public health crisis. Falls and their associated healthcare costs can be reduced by better integrating research on exercise intervention into clinical practice and community programs, the study says.

As healthcare increasingly embraces prevention and wellness strategies, strong communication between physicians, physical therapists and other key stakeholders will help to capture our elders most at risk for falls. The physical therapists at Elliott Physical Therapy strongly believe in patient education, risk assessment, evidence-based falls prevention classes and skilled physical therapy intervention are the basis for a solid plan of attack. Please contact Elliott Physical Therapy in Dorchester at 617-506-7210 or in North Attleboro at 508-316-0559 if you are concerned that you or a loved one may be a fall risk.