The Importance of Physical Therapy in Reducing Falls in the Elderly

Although there is no magic pill for preventing falls in the elderly, we often overlook one of the best kept secrets in prevention.  Physical Therapists can help reduce the risk of elderly falls by 25 percent or more. Falls are the leading cause of fatal injuries in older adults and are the most common cause of nonfatal, trauma-related hospital admissions. In fact, falls occur in one in four older adults, and every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall. But falling is not an inevitable part of the aging process; by using Physical Therapy, the number of falls among seniors can be substantially reduced.

There are several factors that increase the risk of falling in the elderly:

  • Experiencing a fall in the past year that often induces a fear of falling
  • Prescription drugs, including psychoactive medications or the side effects from certain drug combinations.
  • Use of an assistive device,  cane, or walker
  • Require assistance for activities of daily living
  • Incontinence
  • Impaired vision or environmental hazards such as throw rugs and dim lighting.

One of the biggest culprits affecting the chances of falling – Gait Speed

Physical therapists are able to access gait speed and with that information, they can determine whether a senior is at a higher risk of falling and what can be done to help prevent a fall. The slower the gait speed, the higher the risk of falling.

The good news is that a physical therapist can improve gait speed and thus reduce the risk of falling, the chance of hospitalization, and improve quality of life. The Journal of American Geriatrics Society published a study in which muscle strengthening and balance retraining exercises designed specifically to prevent falls in older adults and individually prescribed and delivered by trained physical therapists reduced the number of falls and fall-related injuries by 35 percent.

The World Health Organization recommends that older adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic physical activity per week – this can be done independently, in group classes, or as part of a physical therapy session. It is recommended that older adults with poor mobility perform physical activity at least three days a week and ideally with a physical therapist of in a group setting to improve balance and prevent falls.

Improving the quality of life

Physical activity that includes patient-specific physical therapy can extend life and enhance its quality. Physical therapies ensure the elderly are receiving the proper amount of moderate-intensity aerobic activity as well as benefits like increased lung capacity, improved leg strength, and a decrease in vertigo. In addition to lowering fall risk, proper activity can also lower rates of mortality, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke as well as exhibiting higher levels of functional health and improved cognitive function.

While it might not be possible to completely prevent a fall, doing balance and strength exercises can substantially reduce the risk. Click HERE for a few exercises from John Hopkins Medicine that may work well for seniors who are at a low fall risk.  Consultation with your doctor or physical therapist is always recommended before starting new exercises, especially for those with weak balance.  Once clearance is received, and physical therapy begins, a longer, healthier life awaits.

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