By Jim Picone, Grace Cottage Family Health Physician Assistant
We’ve come a long way, about six million years in fact, since our ancestors began walking on two legs, using that newfound ability to navigate the grasslands and forests of their world. Today, here in Vermont, we’re navigating our world of ice and snow, learning in a way our ancestors could never have imagined that what goes up often comes crashing down.
Slips and falls are lurking everywhere, catching us unaware on snowy sidewalks and mud-slick pathways. We are on guard for falls when we know we’re on dangerous ground. We expect to fall while skiing or snowboarding; we might fall snowshoeing or shoveling out after a Nor’easter. We’re on alert for slips, and taking care to avoid a fall.
Yet my experience working in emergency rooms shows that many of the worst wrist or ankle fractures come from the unexpected falls in icy parking lots and driveways. We step out of our car at the grocery store, and then without warning find ourselves face-first on the icy parking lot pavement.
And while we work overtime to educate our senior neighbors about the dangers of falls and prevention methods, the reality is that all ages are at risk. In fact, a study reported in the Journal of Allied Health showed that 50- to 60-year-olds fall more often than older folks because they are more active, which puts them at greater risk. Also, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people are more likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury from falling than from any other cause.
It’s no secret that preventing a fall is the best medicine. So, follow this advice from the National Institutes of Health and others:
- Hold on to handrails when they are available,
- Spread salt and sand on icy sidewalks and driveways,
- Invest in traction cleats for boots and shoes,
- Tidy up things on the floors that could cause you to trip,
- Have your eyesight and hearing checked regularly,
- And make sure medications don’t have side effects that could lead to wobbliness and falls.
Beyond these safety measures, you can help to prevent falls by improving your balance (can you stand on one foot for 30 seconds, AND do it while turning your head?), and try to get more physical activity. Talk to your medical provider about ways you can plan for and prevent falls! At Grace Cottage, one way to do that is to take our free Tai Chi for Fall Prevention Classes. We have both beginner and advanced classes. More information is on our website (gracecottage.org/our-services/wellness-programs) or call 802-365-3649.
Despite our best efforts, however, falls do happen. And usually there are only seconds to react and prepare to hit the ground. But here, too, you can try to prevent serious injury by taking action as you feel your feet going out from under you.
Who better to provide some advice on “safer” falling than Alex Marcigilano, a professional stuntwoman, who told AARP recently that the best way to fall is to:
- Stay bent, keep your elbows and knees bent. If you panic and stretch your arms out – often a reaction to try to break the fall — you are more likely to break a wrist.
- Protect your head. Falling forward, turn your face to the side; falling backward, tuck your chin to your chest to prevent banging the back of your head on the ground.
- Land on “the meat.” Try to cushion the fall with the muscles in your back, butt and thighs – so you’re less likely to crack elbows, knees, tailbones and hips.
- Finally, roll. Give into the fall, don’t try to stop your body quickly.
The physical therapists at Grace Cottage Hospital echoed that advice. Pay attention as you fall (perhaps easier said than done!), and make yourself small by getting low and crouching as you feel yourself going down. Bend, twist and roll. Resist the urge to put your hand out to break your fall, and instead tuck your shoulders in. Protect your head, tuck in your chin, and again … roll.
No one wants to fall, but remember — falling is not inevitable. As with many things in life, awareness and preparation can greatly increase your safety and greatly reduce your chance of falling. I hope these suggestions will help you do that!
Jim Picone is a board-certified Physician Assistant. He earned his Physician Assistant degree with a Bachelor’s in Medicine from the University of Iowa. During his decades of professional experience, Jim has worked at the Central Vermont Medical Center, University of Vermont Medical Center, Green Mountain Orthopedic Surgery, and Valley Regional Hospital Orthopedic Group. He joined the Grace Cottage staff in 2019.