Preventing Falls and Related Fractures

January 2012

Falls are serious at any age, and breaking a bone after a fall becomes more likely as a person ages. Many of us know someone who has fallen and broken a bone. While healing, the fracture limits the person’s activities and sometimes requires surgery. Often, the person wears a heavy cast to support the broken bone and needs physical therapy to resume normal activities. People are often unaware of the frequent link between a broken bone and osteoporosis. It is known as a silent disease because it progresses without symptoms, osteoporosis involves the gradual loss of bone tissue or bone density and results in bones so fragile they break under the slightest strain. Consequently, falls are especially dangerous for people who are unaware that they have low bone density. If the patient and the doctor fail to connect the broken bone to osteoporosis, the chance to make a diagnosis with a bone density test and begin a prevention or treatment program is lost. Bone loss continues, and other bones may break.

Even though bones do not break after every fall, the person who has fallen and broken a bone nearly always becomes fearful of falling again. As a result, she or he may limit activities for the sake of “safety.” Among Americans age 65 and older, fall-related injuries are the leading cause of accidental death.

This publication explores the components of the Fracture Triangle and offers tips for reducing the chances of fall-related fractures that result from low bone mass and osteoporosis. If one of the following three factors is modified, the chances of breaking a bone are greatly reduced:

Triangle diagram of the relationship between fall, force, and fragility

The Fall Itself

The Force and Direction of the Fall

The Fragility of the Bone(s) That Take the Impact

The Fall Itself

Several factors can lead to a fall. Loss of footing or traction is a common cause of falls. Loss of footing occurs when there is less than total contact between one’s foot and the ground or floor. Loss of traction occurs when one’s feet slip on wet or slippery ground or floor. Other examples of loss of traction include tripping, especially over uneven surfaces such as sidewalks, curbs, or floor elevations that result from carpeting, risers, or scatter rugs. Loss of footing also happens from using household items intended for other purposes – for example, climbing on kitchen chairs or balancing on boxes or books to increase height.

A fall may occur because a person’s reflexes have changed. As people age, reflexes slow down. Reflexes are automatic responses to stimuli in the environment. Examples of reflexes include quickly slamming on the car brakes when a child runs into the street or quickly moving out of the way when something accidentally falls. Aging slows a person’s reaction time and makes it harder to regain one’s balance following a sudden movement or shift of body weight.

Improving Balance

  • Do muscle-strengthening exercises.
  • Obtain maximum vision correction.
  • Practice using bifocal or trifocal glasses.
  • Practice balance exercises daily.

Changes in muscle mass and body fat also can play a role in falls. As people get older, they lose muscle mass because they have become less active over time. Loss of muscle mass, especially in the legs, reduces one’s strength to the point where she or he is often unable to get up from a chair without assistance. In addition, as people age, they lose body fat that has cushioned and protected bony areas, such as the hips. This loss of cushioning also affects the soles of the feet, which upsets the person’s ability to balance. The gradual loss of muscle strength, which is common in older people but not inevitable, also plays a role in falling. Muscle-strengthening exercises can help people regain their balance, level of activity, and alertness no matter what their age.

Changes in vision also increase the risk of falling. Diminished vision can be corrected with glasses. However, often these glasses are bifocal or trifocal so that when the person looks down through the lower half of her or his glasses, depth perception is altered. This makes it easy to lose one’s balance and fall. To prevent this from happening, people who wear bifocals or trifocals must practice looking straight ahead and lowering their head. For many other older people, vision changes cannot be corrected completely, making even the home environment hazardous.

Medications That May Increase the Risk of Falling

  • Blood pressure pills
  • Heart medicines
  • Diuretics or water pills
  • Muscle relaxers or tranquilizers

As people get older, they also are more likely to suffer from a variety of chronic medical conditions that often require taking several medications. People with chronic illnesses that affect their circulation, sensation, mobility, or mental alertness as well as those taking some types of medications (see above table) are more likely to fall as a result of drug-related side effects such as dizziness, confusion, disorientation, or slowed reflexes.

Drinking alcoholic beverages also increases the risk of falling. Alcohol slows reflexes and response time; causes dizziness, sleepiness, or lightheadedness; alters balance; and encourages risky behaviors that can lead to falls.

The Force and Direction of a Fall

The force of a fall (how hard a person lands) plays a major role in determining whether or not a person will break a bone. For example, the greater the distance of the hip bone to the floor, the greater the risk of fracturing a hip, so tall people appear to have an increased risk of fracture when they fall. The angle at which a person falls also is important. For example, falling sideways or straight down is more risky than falling backward.

Did you know?

  • Being tall appears to increase your risk of a hip fracture.
  • How you land increases your fracture risk.
  • Catching yourself so you land on your hands or grabbing onto an object as you fall can prevent a hip fracture.

Protective responses, such as reflexes and changes in posture that break the fall, can reduce the risk of fracturing a bone. Individuals who land on their hands or grab an object on their descent are less likely to fracture their hip, but they may fracture their wrist or arm. Although these fractures are painful and interfere with daily activities, they do not carry the high risks that a hip fracture does.

The type of surface on which one lands also can affect whether or not a bone breaks. Landing on a soft surface is less likely to cause a fracture than landing on a hard surface.

Preliminary research suggests that by wearing trochanteric (hip) padding, people can decrease the chances of fracturing a hip after a fall. The energy created by the fall is distributed throughout the pad, lessening the impact to the hip. Further research is needed to fully evaluate the role of these devices in decreasing the risk of a hip fracture following a fall.

Bone Fragility

Although most serious falls happen when people are older, steps to prevent and treat bone loss and falls can never begin too early. Many people begin adulthood with less than optimal bone mass, so the fact that bone mass or density is lost slowly over time puts them at increased risk for fractures.

Bones that once were strong become so fragile and thin that they break easily. Activities that once were done without a second thought are now avoided for fear that they will lead to another fracture.

Steps to Prevent Fragile Bones

Prevention of Falls and Fractures

Safety first to prevent falls: At any age, people can change their environments to reduce their risk of falling and breaking a bone.

Outdoor safety tips:

  • In nasty weather, use a walker or cane for added stability.
  • Wear warm boots with rubber soles for added traction.
  • Look carefully at floor surfaces in public buildings. Many floors are made of highly polished marble or tile that can be very slippery. If floors have plastic or carpet runners in place, stay on them whenever possible.
  • Identify community services that can provide assistance, such as 24-hour pharmacies and grocery stores that take orders over the phone and deliver. It is especially important to use these services in bad weather.
  • Use a shoulder bag, fanny pack, or backpack to leave hands free.
  • Stop at curbs and check their height before stepping up or down. Be cautious at curbs that have been cut away to allow access for bikes or wheelchairs. The incline up or down may lead to a fall.

Indoor safety tips:

  • Keep all rooms free from clutter, especially the floors.
  • Keep floor surfaces smooth but not slippery. When entering rooms, be aware of differences in floor levels and thresholds.
  • Wear supportive, low-heeled shoes, even at home. Avoid walking around in socks, stockings, or floppy, backless slippers.
  • Check that all carpets and area rugs have skid-proof backing or are tacked to the floor, including carpeting on stairs.
  • Keep electrical and telephone cords and wires out of walkways.
  • Be sure that all stairwells are adequately lit and that stairs have handrails on both sides. Consider placing fluorescent tape on the edges of the top and bottom steps.
  • For optimal safety, install grab bars on bathroom walls beside tubs, showers, and toilets. If you are unstable on your feet, consider using a plastic chair with a back and nonskid leg tips in the shower.
  • Use a rubber bath mat in the shower or tub.
  • Keep a flashlight with fresh batteries beside your bed.
  • Add ceiling fixtures to rooms lit by lamps only, or install lamps that can be turned on by a switch near the entry point into the room. Another option is to install voice- or sound-activated lamps.
  • Use bright light bulbs in your home.
  • If you must use a step-stool for hard-to-reach areas, use a sturdy one with a handrail and wide steps. A better option is to reorganize work and storage areas to minimize the need for stooping or excessive reaching.
  • Consider purchasing a portable phone that you can take with you from room to room. It provides security because you can answer the phone without rushing for it and you can call for help should an accident occur.
  • Don’t let prescriptions run low. Always keep at least 1 week’s worth of medications on hand at home. Check prescriptions with your doctor and pharmacist to see if they may be increasing your risk of falling. If you take multiple medications, check with your doctor and pharmacist about possible interactions between the different medications.
  • Arrange with a family member or friend for daily contact. Try to have at least one person who knows where you are.
  • If you live alone, you may wish to contract with a monitoring company that will respond to your call 24 hours a day.
  • Watch yourself in a mirror. Does your body lean or sway back and forth or side to side? People with decreased ability to balance often have a high degree of body sway and are more likely to fall.

Practice Balance Exercises Every Day

  • While holding the back of a chair, sink, or countertop, practice standing on one leg at a time for a minute. Gradually increase the time. Try balancing with your eyes closed. Try balancing without holding on.
  • While holding the back of a chair, sink, or countertop, practice standing on your toes, then rock back to balance on your heels. Hold each position for a count of 10.
  • While holding the back of chair, sink, or countertop with both hands, make a big circle to the left with hips, then repeat to the right. Do not move your shoulders or feet. Repeat five times.

Reducing the Force of a Fall

Take steps to lessen your chances of breaking a bone in the event that you do fall:

  • Remember that falling sideways or straight down is more likely to result in a hip fracture than falling in other directions. If possible, try to fall forward or to land on your buttocks.
  • If possible, land on your hands or use objects around you to break a fall.
  • Walk carefully, especially on hard surfaces.
  • When possible, wear protective clothing for padding.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether you may be a candidate for hip padding.

Decreasing Bone Fragility

Individuals can protect bone health by following osteoporosis prevention and treatment strategies:

  • Consume a calcium-rich diet that provides between 1,000 mg (milligrams) daily for men and women up to age 50. Women over age 50 and men over age 70 should increase their intake to 1,200 mg daily from a combination of foods and supplements.
  • Obtain 600 IU (International Units) of vitamin D daily up to age 70. Men and women over age 70 should increase their uptake to 800 IU daily.
  • Participate in weight-bearing and resistance-training exercises most days, preferably daily.
  • Talk with your doctor about having a bone mineral density (BMD) test. The most widely recognized BMD test is called a dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry, or DXA test. It is painless, a bit like having an x-ray, but with much less exposure to radiation. It can measure bone density at your hip and spine.
  • Talk with your doctor about possibly beginning a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration for osteoporosis to stop bone loss, improve bone density, and reduce fracture risk.

People need to know whether they are at risk for developing osteoporosis or whether they have lost so much bone that they already have osteoporosis. Although risk factors can alert a person to the possibility of low bone density, only a BMD test can measure current bone density, diagnose osteoporosis, and determine fracture risk. Many different techniques measure bone mineral density painlessly and safely. Most of them involve machines that use extremely low levels of radiation to complete their readings. Sometimes, ultrasound machines, which rely on sound waves, are used instead.

Individuals may wish to have a BMD test to determine current bone health. Today, Medicare and many private insurance carriers cover bone density tests to detect osteoporosis for individuals who meet certain criteria. Talk with your doctor about whether or not this test would be appropriate for you. Falls are serious, but simple, inexpensive steps can be taken to reduce your risk of falling and of breaking a bone if you do fall.

Recommended Calcium and Vitamin D Intakes
Life-stage group Calcium mg/day Vitamin D (IU/day)
Definitions: mg = milligrams; IU = International Units
Source: Food and Nutrition Board, Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 2010.
Infants 0 to 6 months 200 400
Infants 6 to 12 months 260 400
1 to 3 years old 700 600
4 to 8 years old 1,000 600
9 to 13 years old 1,300 600
14 to 18 years old 1,300 600
19 to 30 years old 1,000 600
31 to 50 years old 1,000 600
51- to 70-year-old males 1,000 600
51- to 70-year-old females 1,200 600
>70 years old 1,200 800
14 to 18 years old, pregnant/lactating 1,300 600
19 to 50 years old, pregnant/lactating 1,000 600

Resources

For additional information on osteoporosis, contact:

NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center

Website: http://www.bones.nih.gov
Phone: 202-223-0344
Toll free: 800-624-BONE (2663)

For additional information on fall prevention, contact:

National Institute on Aging

Website: http://www.nia.nih.gov/

The National Institutes of Health Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~
National Resource Center acknowledges the assistance of the National Osteoporosis Foundation in the preparation of this publication.

For Your Information

This publication contains information about medications used to treat the health condition discussed here. When this publication was produced, we included the most up-to-date (accurate) information available. Occasionally, new information on medication is released.

For updates and for any questions about any medications you are taking, please contact:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Website: http://www.fda.gov
Toll free: 888–INFO–FDA (888–463–6332)

For updates and questions about statistics, please contact:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics

Website: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs
Toll free: 800–232–4636

NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center

2 AMS Circle
Bethesda,  MD 20892-3676
Phone: 202-223-0344
Toll Free: 800-624-BONE (2663)
TTY: 202-466-4315
Fax: 202-293-2356
Email: NIHBoneInfo@mail.nih.gov
Website: http://www.bones.nih.gov

The NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center provides patients, health professionals, and the public with an important link to resources and information on metabolic bone diseases. The mission of NIH ORBD~NRC is to expand awareness and enhance knowledge and understanding of the prevention, early detection, and treatment of these diseases as well as strategies for coping with them.

The NIH Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases ~ National Resource Center is supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases with contributions from:

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

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