When Falls Lead to Fractures: Healing Broken Bones in Seniors

falls and fractures seniors

A broken bone is a serious medical event. This is true no matter one’s age. From an adventurous child falling out of a tree and breaking an arm to an elderly person slipping in the kitchen and breaking their hip, everyone has that moment of shock right after it happens – that moment when we realize that at least for a while, life is going to be quite different. A bone is broken and it’s going to take time to heal.

But the age of the person who took that tumble makes a big difference. While a younger person might heal within a matter of weeks, an older person might suffer more serious consequences, such as broken or fractured bones that require surgery, keep them bedridden for a time, limit mobility on a significant scale, or even lead to an increased risk of death in the months and years following the injury[1]. 

Avoiding fractures in the first place is always the best move, which means fall prevention is absolutely essential. Aging in place home modifications, such as installing grab bars, non-skid flooring and railings near steps and stairs are a great idea, as is medical alert technology from Alert1.

Why Fractures are More Serious in Older Adults

Fractured bones in elderly adults are dangerous because they take so much time to heal and it can be tough to regain a good level of mobility after the injury. According to Henry Ford Health, a broken hip increases your risk of dying by 25% in the year after the break. The Endocrine Society found that the risk of death for seniors is increased for up to 10 years after a broken bone.

There is also typically a longer hospital stay. For younger people, a break means getting the bone set in a cast and some pain medication. They might be sent home within hours. But for the elderly, it’s often more serious. The average patient over the age of 50 who suffers a hip fracture is hospitalized for two weeks. And unfortunately, half of those are unable to return to independent living afterward[2]. In the event of a serious injury, it is critical to get help as quickly as possible. Alert1 medical alert systems for seniors summon help in seconds when there is no time to waste. And we stay on the line with our members until help arrives.

Most Common Fractures in Older Adults

Severe pain is often the first sign that you’ve broken a bone, but some seniors might not feel pain at all until they put weight on the affected limb. Others might have a small fracture that leads to a dull, nagging pain – not a sharp, take-your-breath-away kind of hurt. But by far the most common breaks are pretty clear. They include[3]:

·         Hip fractures. According to the CDC, more than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling, and most are caused by seniors falling sideways. A hip fracture is very serious because it almost always prevents your ability to walk and requires surgery to repair or replace the hip joint.

·         Forearm fractures. When you fall, you will instinctively try to catch yourself. That can lead to fractures of your forearm if you happen to fall on your arm as you’re going down.

·         Wrist fractures. These often happen when you try to catch your fall.

·         Femoral fractures. This is one of the strongest bones in the body. It often takes a very hard blow or fall to break it. Treatment is extensive, including surgery.

Senior Adult Bones Heal Differently

There are many reasons why our bones get tougher to heal as we age. The biggest reason is that over time, the composition of our bones changes. Our bodies begin to pull calcium from our bones to use for other purposes. The body doesn’t make new bone cells fast enough to replace those that are lost over time. Bone density decreases and the number of stem cells in our bone marrow does too. There might even be issues with the body’s vascular system, which prevents proper blood flow to the area of the fracture and makes it take longer to heal[4].

In addition, some diseases and health problems could lead to slower healing. Diabetes, for instance, is notorious for slow wound healing, but that also includes wounds on the inside – such as broken bones[5]. Osteoporosis can significantly inhibit healing. In a twist of irony, the very medications you might use to alleviate pain after a broken bone can make it harder for the bone to heal. Some medications, like NSAIDs, can delay or inhibit healing of a fracture[6].

Tips for Encouraging Better Healing of Fractures

The most important step, by far, is to get help immediately. Even if the fracture isn’t causing much pain, that could be because the nerves are damaged, and that can make treatment even more extensive. Never hesitate to get help even if you aren’t sure if something is broken. This is not something you want to wait out!

If you have a medical alert, you’re in good hands. You can press the emergency button alarm and tell a trained professional that you need help. They will assess the situation, send the help you need, and stay on the line to support you while you wait for emergency services, family, or neighbors to arrive.

Pay attention to what your doctor tells you. For instance, if you’re advised to not bear weight on a broken leg, don’t! On the other hand, if you are advised to bear weight and follow gentle exercise regimens to help strengthen the bone, do it. Attend all physical therapy sessions and complete all the exercises. Only your medical team can determine what course of action is best for you.

What you eat during this time matters a great deal. Include good foods for bone health in your diet, including those that are rich in vitamin D and calcium. Some great options include dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes, figs, grapefruit, fatty fish, almond butter, and tofu – along with lots of dairy, of course[7].

Finally, never hesitate to ask for help. The last thing you want to do is reinjure yourself or wind up with another break. Reach out to friends and family. Consider hiring a professional caregiver to help, even temporarily, especially if you have a significant break that requires very limited movement while it heals.

It’s also a good idea to consider a medical alert system with fall detection. This senior life-saving alert pendant allows you to reach out to get the help you need. And if you suffer another fall, sensors in the device can recognize the accident as soon as it happens and automatically alert our trained professionals on your behalf.

Avoiding More Fractures

Once someone has gone through the pain and healing of a fracture, they certainly don’t want to do it again. Fortunately, there are some ways to reduce the risk of breaking a bone. These tips aren’t a surefire way to avoid every situation that could result in an injury, but they can certainly improve your odds of staying safe.

·         Talk about osteoporosis. Speak to your doctor about the risk of osteoporosis. Unfortunately, you might have no idea you have osteoporosis until you have a bone that breaks much easier than expected, back pain, a stooped posture, and a loss of height. You are especially at risk if either of your parents had hip fractures, you took corticosteroids for any extended amount of time, or you went through early menopause[8]. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force encourages all women over the age of 65 to get a bone density screening. Men should check with their doctor to determine when a screening is recommended.

·         Implement aging in place solutions. Fall prevention is a key component to avoid fractures and other serious injuries. Aging in place home modifications can help. Consider installing grab bars near the toilet and shower or bath. Make sure your home is free of clutter. Invest in non-skid flooring and remove trip hazards, such as electrical cords and throw rugs.

·         Get a medical alert pendant. If you do suffer a fall, you’ll need help right away. The longer you wait, the more severe the consequences could be. If you fall and you don’t have a medical alert watch or necklace, you have to get to the phone, which can be an impossible undertaking. An emergency response solution at your fingertips will get assistance on the way immediately.

·         Understand your medications. Some medications can cause drowsiness, fainting, weakness, and dizziness, just to name a few of the more common side effects. Know what your medications could do and be very aware of any changes that might occur when you start a new medication.

·         Get good exercise. A roundup of studies in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that those who exercise on a regular basis can stave off osteoporosis and other health problems. Other studies have found that low-impact activity makes it easier to recover from a fracture and reduces the risk of future falls[9].

·         Eat the right foods. Calcium and vitamin D are two of the key ingredients for strong bones. Ensure that you are getting plenty through your daily diet – and you can get that dose of vitamin D from just a few minutes in the sunlight. But even getting outdoors and eating the best diet might not be enough, so speak to your doctor about supplements.

·         Stop smoking. Smoking can be detrimental to every part of your body, including a healing bone. The Bone and Joint Research journal reports that smoking delays healing of fractures[10], which can leave you incapacitated or in pain even longer.

Healing broken bones for seniors can take some time. While you’re waiting for that bone to heal, work on implementing the suggestions above to avoid another serious injury. Always follow up with your doctor to ensure the fracture is healing properly and don’t get discouraged. Many elderly adults heal from fractures, even serious ones, and return to their active and healthy lifestyles.