The Impact of Falls on Your Body (And How to Prevent Them)

senior fall

If you’re a senior or elderly adult and you’ve ever suffered a fall, you know that it seems to happen both in an instant and in slow motion. You suddenly feel yourself falling, and though time might seem to slow down for a moment – long enough for you to realize you’re falling and try to stop it from happening – the next thing you know, you’re on the ground.

At that point, several things have already occurred. You might be in pain. You might be disoriented. You might even be unconscious. All of those reasons are more than enough to prompt you to wear a medical alert pendant at all times, no matter where you are. You can press the button if you suffer a fall so you can get help headed your way within moments. If you opt for a medical alert system with fall detection, you have even greater protection. The fall detection sensor can send an alert to an emergency response center even if you can’t press the button yourself.

But what exactly happens when a senior has a fall?

The Physical and Mental Response to Falling

When you start to fall, you might feel it coming. Your balance is suddenly off and you begin to stumble. Or you slip on something and feel yourself going down. When this happens, your body immediately releases adrenaline, which is meant to get you moving fast to avoid danger. You might reach out to hold onto something – this happens by instinct, not by thought. You feel a surge of panic. You brace for impact by tensing your muscles.

Your brain recognizes what’s happening and does a variety of things to try to protect you. Nursing Times points out that several chemical reactions happen in the body at the moment of impact. Your brain attempts to reduce how sensitive your nerve endings are. It releases natural opioids, the body’s own painkillers, to block the transfer of pain signals. And it releases other chemicals that are designed to prevent pain from getting worse or spreading. For the scientifically curious, these compounds can include noradrenaline, serotonin, bradykinin, histamine, and neurotensin, among many others[1].

At the moment of impact, several negative things can happen. If you’re lucky, you are simply bruised from the soft tissue impact with a hard surface. Those bruises happen when small blood vessels at the point of impact are ruptured. Bruises might not appear immediately, but you can often be certain of where they will form – that’s the spot that hurts the most after a fall.

But you might also suffer more serious consequences, such as broken bones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about 20% of falls can lead to broken bones. In fact, more than 95% of all hip fractures are caused by slip and fall accidents. Falls are also the most common cause for traumatic brain injuries, which often occur when you hit your head on something as you fall. Hitting your head when you fall is especially a risk in the bathroom, where hard surfaces abound and it can be tough to avoid one if you slip and fall. (That’s why we recommend wearing our shower-resistant medical alarm with fall detection even while in the shower, as that’s where many falls at home occur.)

The Immediate Aftermath

Nine million visits to the emergency room happen every year as a direct result of falls[2]. Many of those are incredibly serious. Unintentional injury is responsible for 85% of fatal injuries in the elderly. Among those aged 65 and older, 55% of injury-related deaths were the result of falling, according to Medscape. Keep in mind that these statistics focus on fatalities; many older adults also face serious injuries that lead to temporary or permanent disability.

However, it’s also important to remember that falling down can be a serious event for anyone. The CDC reports that unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle accidents, falls, drowning, and poisoning, are the most common cause of death among those aged 1 through 44[3]. That’s a strong argument for an emergency response solution for younger adults as well, as these individuals are at risk for a situation that might require calling for help right away. What better way to get that help than by pressing a single button?

Here’s more about what happens at the moment of impact after a fall[4]:

·         Broken bones. The older you are, the more likely you are to break a bone as a result of falling. Though a fall can most often lead to a hip fracture, breaking other bones is common as well, such as breaking your wrist when you use your hand to protect yourself from the fall, or breaking your ankle when you go down and it bends too far the wrong way.

·         Knee injuries. Knee injuries can range from minor abrasions to torn tendons and ligaments, with the worst injury being a dislocation of the patella, or knee cap. Often these injuries can result in surgery, especially if the fall damages the tendons and ligaments that control movement[5].

·         Rotator cuff injuries. This damage to the shoulder can be very painful and lead to very limited use of the affected arm. Shoulder dislocation is also possible, as are breaks of the collarbone. In many cases, those who suffer injuries to the shoulder will require surgery to fix the damage.

·         Soft tissue injuries. Remember how well your brain does in protecting you from the pain of a fall? That’s why sometimes you don’t know that you have a soft tissue injury until days later. You might have sprained a wrist or ankle or suffered tears to the ligaments and tendons in your body. You might not notice this until it becomes difficult to walk or move without pain.

·         Cuts and abrasions. These might not seem as severe as other injuries, but when they happen among the elderly, they can be devastating. The British Journal of Community Nursing points out that aging skin has a greater risk of tissue damage. A skin tear can be tough to heal, especially if the person has a chronic condition like diabetes, which can affect blood flow[6].

·         Traumatic brain injuries. Also known as TBI, a traumatic brain injury occurs when you hit your head on something. Sometimes the injury is small and easy to recover from, such as a mild concussion or bruising. But others can be quite serious, including hematomas, hemorrhaging, or skull fractures. Even more frightening, sometimes those who have a TBI might not know it until it’s far too late. That’s what happened to several beloved celebrities. Bob Saget died after suffering a fall in his hotel room, while Natasha Richardson passed away after suffering a TBI while skiing. Saget was 65 at the time of his death. Richardson was 45[7].

·         Injuries to the back and spinal cord. These injuries to the vertebrae or discs of the back can lead to serious, chronic pain and limited mobility. If the injury extends to the spinal cord, it’s possible to suffer from paralysis or sensory impairments. The Mayo Clinic says that among the elderly aged 65 and older, spinal cord injuries are most often caused by falls.

In addition to the injury itself, these issues can result in bleeding, inflammation, swelling, significant pain, loss of mobility, and more. In the case of traumatic brain injury, you could feel confused, have a horrible headache, feel very tired, or experience nausea and vomiting. If it’s more serious, you might experience seizures, unconsciousness, persistent pain, slurred speech, and more[8]. This is why it’s vitally important to use a medical alert pendant to call for help immediately, even if you feel as though you’re okay. You need to be checked out by medical professionals to be certain.

Don’t be surprised if takes several months to heal from what appears to be a “minor” fall[9]. Soft tissue damage alone can take months to heal, while bruises from that damage can take even longer to go away. If you’ve broken a bone or suffered an even more serious injury, healing from it takes time, and you might have to undergo rehabilitation to get back the mobility you lost.

Focus on Fall Prevention

Reading all of this information about the consequences of falls can be very frightening. But remember, it’s possible to lower your fall risk by taking the proper actions. For instance, aging in place home modifications such as handrails near stairs, grab bars in the bathroom, good lighting throughout the home, and removing trip hazards such as extension cords or loose rugs can make a home much safer for everyone who lives there, not just older adults. Here are other things you can do for fall prevention[10]:

·         Speak to your doctor. Your doctor can adjust your medications, call for a home assessment, or otherwise help you plan ways to avoid falls.

·         Stay strong through exercise. Fall prevention exercises that improve balance, such as Tai Chi, are especially helpful. Stretching can be a great option for staying flexible.

·         Get a vision check. Declining vision can make it tough to see how close things really are, can make things appear blurry, and can otherwise take away your ability to see potential trip hazards.

·         Do everything you can to make your home safer. Aging in place solutions can go a long way toward keeping your home as safe as possible. Speak to an aging in place specialist to find the many ways you can modify your home to best suit your needs.

·         Wear a fall detection safety alarm. Wear it at all times for the peace of mind that can boost your confidence. The more confident you are, the less likely you are to fall.

As always, Alert1 wishes you health and safety!