Tripping and Falling: How to Lower the Risks

by Cheryl

by Dr. Josef DellaGrotte, MA, Ph.D, CFP-physio

A man of age 72 who loves dancing, picks up a heavy bag of ice melt in the basement, goes up a few stairs, loses his balance and falls backward, striking his head. He is rushed to the hospital. His wife, a nurse, comments: ‘A perfect storm: age, carrying too much weight, some physical problems, and stairs! “ His explanation? ‘I just lost my balance’.

A woman, age 77, carries laundry down the stairs to the basement, misses the last step, falls, cannot move at all, lies there for two days. Major hip-femur surgery done.  Some years later she falls again, and is in hospital for a month, unable to stand. Her explanation? ‘I just slipped and fell’.

Now for the brain’s ‘reality’ rendition: Your brain does not recognize or register “I just fell down” as an answer. It reacts to a set of stimuli. If you are in the right state of fitness and posture, the brain’s ability to respond immediately with “righting” reflexes can happen in 1/500th of a second. In other words, the body’s nervous system takes over, preventing the fall.

Imbalances, being overweight and body misalignments can cause the brain’s connections to the muscle-joint responses to be diminished, with the righting reflex response time to 1/100th of a second or longer, at least five times slower than optimal. From the brain’s point of view, the righting reflexes are activating but too late! So then, how to reduce the risk of falling?

First, by prevention. Not carrying heavy things, moving slower, and being attentive to your steps and your postural balance.

Secondly, by improving your movement. Do basic ‘integrative’– not just isolating — exercises. Movement exercises that integrate around biological and functional actions help the brain and body learn better and more efficient alignment around the body’s center of gravity.

Now for the big question: what kind of exercises and who teaches them?

  • Medical doctors? They may be good at other body functions but are not always well-trained in movement basics or in how to improve them.
  • Physical therapists, if trained well in functional movement and exercise and not just isolated exercise, can be good teachers. Also, look around for a PT sports therapist.
  • Personal trainers? They can sometimes help but may have minimal training in biomechanics, and less in how the brain senses movement (neuro-sensory mechanics).

Let your seeking services be aware! Look for a movement-based therapist, even better someone who has learned additional somatic skills such as tai chi, yoga, Feldenkrais Method, Pilates, or several other modalities which offer movement education (like dancing!). The brain needs this and responds more to movement learning than to just being treated or manipulated (chiropractic), myofascial-release but with no movement learning. These modalities can be helpful but do not produce changes in the brain’s connection to movement. Without movement education, the problem is likely to keep reappearing.