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Q & A: Ask the Doctor ‘How Can I Avoid Slips and Falls this Winter?’

happy senior couple in winter

Dr John FeldmanWhile some slips and falls result in nothing worse than embarrassment, 1 out of 5 causes a serious injury. Fortunately, most falls are preventable. John Feldman, MD, an orthopedist with RWJBarnabas Health Orthopedic Group at Jersey City Medical Center and a member of Barnabas Health Medical Group, explains:

What are the most common conditions that lead to falls in the winter?

A. In icy weather, people are vulnerable to slipping when they’re navigating uneven ground. City sidewalks tend to buckle and be somewhat uneven, and stepping up to or down from a curb can also be a problem. Inside, people track in ice around doorways, it melts and those areas become a slipping hazard. The most important thing in winter is to be aware of the weather, and know the terrain you’re navigating. It’s essential not to become distracted by things, such as your cellphone, especially when walking in a city environment with a lot of traffic.

Is there a “safe” way to walk?

A. In addition to being aware of your environment, consciously slow down your pace. Try to maximize the area in which your foot touches the ground in order to provide greater friction. Walk with a flat foot, knees slightly bent and with a shorter than-usual stride to help prevent slipping. The other thing is keeping your arms free. We’ve evolved to walk upright and when we walk, without even thinking about it, our arms provide a natural counterbalance to our gait. Carrying a briefcase, grocery bag or tote bag means you’re not well-balanced and also are less ready to catch yourself if you do fall. Consider using a backpack to keep your arms free.

What about footwear?

A. It’s very important to wear boots in the winter, or anything with a good tread on the sole. If your work shoes don’t have these, don’t wear them on your commute. Bring your work shoes with you to change into.

What fall-related injuries do you typically see in the winter?

A. We see an increase in elderly people with injuries related to falls—hip fractures, broken wrists, broken shoulders. As we get older, we have increased issues with proprioception, the body’s ability to navigate our extremities in space. People who notice they’re beginning to have trouble with balance should consider using a cane or walker. Some people resist using those types of things, but the best treatment is prevention—and walking aids are excellent tools to help prevent falls.

Are there any other ways to improve balance?

A. If you have had problems with balance, go to a physical therapist for a fall-risk evaluation. He or she can give you really good exercises to help you strengthen your core muscles and keep your balance sharp.

If a person does fall, what should he or she do?

A. Red flags include being unable to bear weight on a foot or leg, or being unable to use or lift an arm, without extreme pain. If the limb has an obvious deformity indicating that a bone is broken, that’s obviously a red flag as well. In those cases, head to the Emergency Department. If the injury is less extreme—for example, a sprained ankle—elevate the extremity to prevent swelling, wrap the injured area with an ACE bandage or compression wrap, and make an appointment with your primary care provider. He or she can triage you and tell you whether you need X-rays or to see a specialist.

RWJBarnabas Health Medical Group providers are Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield OMNIA Health Plan Tier-1 designated and accept most major insurances. To learn more about orthopedic services at Jersey City Medical Center or to schedule an appointment, click here or call 844.63.ORTHO (844.636.7846).