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The right way to fall: preventing and reducing fall-related injuries

Christoph Habel

Whether you’re nine or 90, falls pose a risk to anyone on their feet. They can be unexpected, startling, and dangerous – especially as we get older – and as the leading cause of concussion and traumatic brain injury, it’s important to know what we can do to protect ourselves, should we take a tumble.

To find out about the right way to fall, “Take Care” spoke with physical therapist Jessica Schwartz, who works with athletes and individuals with prosthetic limbs on how to prevent falls and respective injuries.

Many individuals may not even be aware that there is a proper way to fall, considering falls are, according to Schwartz, the primary cause of emergency room visits, hospital admissions, and accidental deaths in older adults.

Credit Carlos Pacheco / Flickr

In fact, many people may make the same crucial mistake when it comes to falling – trying to catch themselves. When someone loses their balance, Schwartz explains, the initial instinct is typically to catch themselves with their hands. The body goes rigid, the hands reach out, and the wrists take the force of the impact. This frequently results in injury, typically wrist fractures, which are diagnosed as “FOOSH” injuries (“falling-on-outstretched-hands”).

So if you shouldn’t catch yourself with your hands, what is the right way to fall?

First and foremost, protecting your head should be the top priority in order to prevent brain injuries that commonly result from falling, Schwartz says. The last thing you want is to fall on your head, and there are a number of measures you can take to prevent doing so.

For one thing, she says, lifelong fitness is a crucial factor in sustaining a healthy body. With increased fitness comes increased reaction time and balance, which undoubtedly helps prevent falling. Schwartz recommends seeing a physical therapist or exercise specialist as early as 30 to begin addressing individual exercise needs.

In fact, physical therapists can provide progressive programs that focus on moderate to high intensity balance exercises, which appear to be one of the most affective interventions in preventing falls.

But falls are inevitable, Schwartz says, and knowing what to do mid-fall is equally as important as preventing them.

When we anticipate a stumble, we can assess our surroundings and attempt to fall gently or catch ourselves. But as Schwartz mentions, falls often catch up by surprise. And in that case, she says, the tuck and roll method can help avert the force of impact.

If near something stable like furniture or a wall, grabbing ahold can slow the rate of falling. From there, she says, you should tuck your chin in, cover your head, and roll into a ball. Not only does this prevent trauma to the head, but it also protects inner organs and other body parts like wrists or knees that can be injured upon landing.

And as far as standing up after the fall, Schwartz recommends rolling onto your side and getting on your hands and knees to start. Then, transition to just your knees, and from there, you can stand one knee at a time, with the help of a wall for support if needed.

With falls being so common, it’s important to make them part of the conversation with your physician. Receiving a yearly balance and cardiovascular checkup is one way to help prevent falls, and physical therapists can provide well-checks to ensure function and movement. But with everyone facing the possibility of stumbling, we can only help ourselves by knowing the right way to fall.