Winter weather poses risk for painful falls

Contributing columnistFebruary 14, 2014 

As the community is held in the grasp of a frigid winter, it's important for everyone, especially seniors, to take precautions to avoid slips and falls on ice and snow.

No matter how well snow and ice are removed from parking lots and sidewalks, you are still likely to encounter some slippery surfaces when walking outdoors in the winter.

Beware of black ice, which can be difficult to see. It is a transparent, thin coating of glazed ice on surfaces like dark asphalt. Stick to cleared pathways or ones that have been treated with sand or salt. At home, use a snow shovel to clear a level pathway from your home to your garage or other areas. Uneven paths covered in snow or thick ice can make you lose your balance

Sometimes, a slippery surface can't be avoided. In this case, bend your body slightly forward, take shorter strides, or shuffle your feet for better traction and stability. Walk flat-footed with your center of gravity directly over the feet, slow down and take shorter steps, as this will allow you to react to a change in traction more easily.

Many falls take place getting in and out of the car. Look around vigilantly to make sure your footing will be clear when you step out of the vehicle.

Once indoors, wipe your feet on floor mats to help remove moisture from your shoes. Wet, slick floors can be just as hazardous as the ice outside. Avoid walking on wet or slippery floors or stairs.

Your arms are important to overall balance, so be sure to wear gloves and avoid keeping your hands in your pockets. Keep your head up and look ahead when you walk. Should you encounter a potentially slick area, test it by tapping your foot on it first.

Risk of falling increases as you grow older and the effects of fall are more serious in older people. Four out of 10 people older than 65 fall each year. Certain health conditions that affect eyesight, hearing, muscle strength or balance can also put you at risk of falling.

Fractured ankles and broken hips are two of the most common injuries that can result from winter weather-related falls. See your doctor right away if you fall on the ice or snow — even if you think you aren't hurt.

There are a number of simple tactics that can help prevent falls. Start by wearing the right shoes to help increase traction on ice and snow. Rubber or neoprene soles, especially those with plenty of tread, provide much better traction than smooth leather soles, high heels or the comfort shoes that are popular with seniors.

Taking vitamin D might also lower the risk of falls in older people because vitamin D makes bones and muscles stronger. Staying active by exercising on regular basis can also help. Walking, swimming and Thai Chi are safe exercises for older people. For extra balance, use a cane, walker and other safety devices.

Dr. Lakshmi Naidu is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.

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