Winter in the Midwest is here, and while it’s tough to predict whether this winter will be colder or snowier than usual, one thing is for sure—at some point temperatures will likely drop and it will be slick outside.
Though that’s just a fact of life for most of us, for older adults or those who suffer from dizziness and balance disorders, it means a higher risk of slipping and falling than usual.
What can you do to prevent slips and falls this winter, either for yourself or a loved one?
Start by honestly assessing your health and talk with your healthcare provider. If you’ve fallen in the past six months, you may be at greater risk of falling again. And each time you fall, the risk of injury increases.
Your healthcare provider can help you determine the reasons you’re falling, including looking closely at any prescription drugs you may take that can cause dizziness and balance problems. Your provider also may suggest you have your vision checked, increasing your physical activity to become stronger and more fit, and may recommend you be assessed for a dizziness or balance disorder.
Managing the risk of BPPV
The most common dizziness and balance disorder that could put you at risk is called benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, or BPPV. In fact, this condition will affect approximately 50 percent of individuals over 70 years of age at least once in their lives.
BPPV typically occurs with a change in head or body position. Episodes last less than one minute. This condition is caused by changes in the balance portion of the inner ear.
Calcium carbonate particles, or otoconia, which the ear uses as part of its gravity detector, are normally found in the inner ear. These particles can become displaced and travel into one of the ear’s semicircular canals, where they do not belong.
BPPV may be the result of the natural aging process, illness, a change in medication, or head trauma. Often, no known cause for BPPV can be identified, but it often can be treated successfully by a trained audiologist.
Steps to prevent falls this winter
Even if you don’t have any risks for falling, there are several steps you can take to stay safe this winter.
- Dress warm. If you’re warm, your muscles will stay relaxed. Tense muscles can adversely affect your balance.
- Keep your hands free to help with balance.
- Use a cane or walker if needed, and if necessary, add a spike or rubber tip to the end for traction.
- Wear low-heeled, rubber-soled, non-slip shoes for the best traction.
- Throw ice melt, salt or kitty litter on icy sidewalks for traction.
- Be careful getting out of your car. Plant both feet firmly on the ground before moving. Steady yourself on the door frame until you have your balance.
- Don’t take shortcuts. Stay on cleared sidewalks and paths, and don’t walk between parked cars. Remember that grassy surfaces can be as slippery as snowy ones.
- Take extra time. Don’t rush. Take short steps with your toes pointed slightly outward to maintain a stable base of support.
- Pay attention. Stay aware of the surfaces ahead of you. Look down with your eyes only. If you move your head downward, you may shift your balance.
- When walking in the dark or in shadowy areas, stay alert for black ice. It can be treacherous and extremely slippery.
- Keep your driveway and walkways clear. If you need to, pay someone to do this. It could prevent a trip to the emergency room, or worse yet, a broken hip.
- If the sidewalks and streets are extremely slick, play it safe. Stay in and wait for the ice and snow to melt.
- Keep rooms free of clutter, especially floors.
- Wear flat or low-heeled shoes.
- Do not walk in socks, stockings, or slippers.
- Be sure rugs have skid-proof backs or are tacked to the floor.
- Be sure stairs are well lit and have rails on both sides.
- Put grab bars on bathroom walls near the tub, shower, and toilet.
- Use a nonskid bathmat in the shower or tub.
- Keep a flashlight next to your bed.
- Use a sturdy step stool with a handrail and wide steps.
- Add more lights in rooms. Motion detection LED night lights that plug into light sockets are an inexpensive way to safely light your path.
- Keep your cell phone close by so that you don’t have to rush to the phone when it rings and so that you can call for help if you fall.
There are also many new technologies available to help in case of a fall. For example, some hearing aid technology now utilizes fall detection. There are also neck-worn alerting systems in case of a fall or emergency that can be utilized. If you have dizziness, vertigo, imbalance, or a history or fear of falling, you may benefit from a comprehensive equilibrium evaluation.
To request an appointment with a dizziness and balance specialist, please call 816-442-7831, or talk with your physician about a referral. Associated Audiologists offers testing at its Overland Park Clinic.