January 28, 2019

While witnesses may laugh, more than ego may be bruised. How to avoid icy falls.

Shirley Rietdyk Shirley Rietdyk
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Some tough facts here. Did you know that your odds of dying from a fall are about equal to those of dying in a car crash? About 1 in 114 for both, according to a new report from the National Safety Council with 2017 data.

Clumsily tripping or big falls are no laughing matter, says a Purdue University professor who specializes in biomechanics, mobility, posture, balance and falls.

“Falls are a serious issue for all adults,” says Shirley Rietdyk, whose research on biomechanics is based in the College of Health and Human Sciences’ Department of Health and Kinesiology. “While injuries are more serious in older adults, we are seeing serious injuries in younger adults as well.”

Rietdyk has studied balance issues in adults of all ages.

“The mechanics and principles of falling in regular weather versus winter weather are the same.”

Two major factors lead to falls: personal and environmental. Icy sidewalks are an environmental feature that often results in falls. Falls can cause broken bones, traumatic brain injuries, other bodily injuries or even death, if severe enough. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 800,000 people who fell had a total medical cost of more than $50 billion, using 2015 data.

“Friction is an important force in our ability to get around,” Rietdyk says. “Ideally, you should walk slower on ice. This will help prevent a fall.”

Of course, now is the prime season for serious falls – the thick of winter where ice, snow and cold weather are pervasive in a large swath of the country. Rietdyk provides several tips for being safe during the winter season:

• Slow down: When walking, lean forward and put the weight on the front of your feet. Keep hands out of pockets for balance, and if you do fall, use them to reduce the impact.

• Shoes: Make sure you are wearing appropriate footwear in wintry conditions. High heel boots and smooth-soled shoes are unstable and can lead to falls.

• Stairs and ramps: Keep your hands free and use handrails. If a ramp is icy, try to find another way into the building. Do not try to multi-task while using stairs. “Using a cell phone on stairs is problematic,” she says.

• Watch where you step: People can trip on snow due to covered items or uneven surfaces. In some instances, people with bifocals or other corrective eyewear misjudge distances.

• History of falls: If you are prone to falling and could injure yourself severely on the ice, stay inside if all possible. Medications can also affect mobility in all types of environments. “The more medications you take, the more likely you are to have a fall,” Rietdyk says.

“Overall, use common sense. Everyone knows to slow down, but people are often in a hurry or distracted. Think about how much time you will lose if you have to go to the ER, versus being 10 minutes late to an appointment,” she says. 

Writer: Matthew Oates, 765-496-2571, oatesw@purdue.edu, @mo_oates 

Source: Shirley Rietdyk. To schedule an interview, please contact Matthew Oates.

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