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6 Ways to Avoid Winter Falls

These Everyday Situations Can Trip You Up, but Smart Strategies Will Keep You Steady

Winter is a high-risk time for injuries from slips and falls—but the good news is that most falls are preventable. Here, experts from Clara Maass Medical Center— board-certified orthopedic surgeon Frank Femino, MD, Director of Orthopedics and John Fontanetta, MD, Chairman of Emergency Medicine, board certified in emergency medicine, internal medicine and pulmonary medicine— give their best advice on avoiding common falling hazards.

HAZARD #1: PREVENTION: When it’s cold outside, people take shortcuts or try to walk more quickly so that they can get inside where it’s warmer. “Many falls happen because of hurrying,” says Dr. Femino. “You don’t have time to shovel the steps, so you figure you’ll just hold on to the rail. You’re rushing to make an appointment, so you don’t pay attention to the things that surround you.” “Give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going,” says Dr. Fontanetta. “Walk slowly and carefully, taking slower, smaller steps and keeping your weight over your feet. And keep your hands out of your pockets so they’re available to block the fall if necessary. If you’re going to fall, using your arms and hands to lessen the impact will help you avoid head trauma.”

HAZARD #2: PREVENTION: “When your muscles are cold they tend to become more rigid,” explains Dr. Femino. “If you go out without proper outdoor clothing, and your legs are cold, they can’t react quickly if you slip or lose your balance.” Don’t run outside—even just to pick up the newspaper—without proper winter clothes, including hat, gloves and coat. At the same time, too much bundling up can actually hinder mobility and affect balance. Choose clothing that’s both warm and light, such as lightweight down coats and vests. Make sure you’re comfortably warm inside, so your muscles are warmed up even before you go out.

HAZARD #3: PREVENTION: At home, get in the habit of taking off your shoes or boots—and asking guests to do the same—right inside the entrance. Then, change into indoor shoes or slippers with good treads. “They should be slippers that hold onto your feet well—not something you just slip into,” says Dr. Fontanetta. Slippery floors are particularly hazardous in offices or stores, where the wet shoes of many people create slick conditions. Be cautious in public places, and make sure your own shoes or boots have good traction and ankle support. 

HAZARD #4: PREVENTION: Many people think it’s important to keep appointments or get their shopping done even though conditions are hazardous. Stay inside unless your task is truly an emergency, says Dr. Femino. “I tell my patients to cancel their appointment if it’s icy or snowy out. I want them to be safe,” he says. “There are very few things that can’t wait until after a snowstorm.”

HAZARD #5: PREVENTION: You have to go out onto the walkway or driveway to get it cleared—but before it’s cleared, a snow-covered driveway is a fall waiting to happen. “Keep a bucket of sand near your front or back door and throw a handful of sand on your steps before you go out,” advises Dr. Femino. “You can do the same thing with salt—even table salt—but if you’re worried about the effect on the environment or neighborhood pets, there are pet-friendly ice melts available. You can also use clean kitty litter for traction.” In most apartment complexes or senior buildings, the pathways are shoveled and salted for the residents, Dr. Femino notes. “But if you live in your own home, it’s better to pay a snow removal service or a neighborhood kid to clear your driveway and walkways rather than risk hurting yourself.”

HAZARD #6: PREVENTION: “This is a huge hazard,” says Dr. Femino. “You drive into a parking lot and step out not knowing what the surface is like.” Park in a well-lit area close to your destination, and take extra care when stepping out of your vehicle. “Getting out of the car is an awkward movement—you have to twist and stand at the same time, which can be especially difficult for someone with arthritis in their knees or hips,” says Dr. Fontanetta. “To get out of the car, take your time to swing both legs out and plant them firmly on the ground before moving. Feel around and steady yourself on the door frame before you start walking.” It’s also smart to keep a flashlight, and even a small container of sand or salt, in your car so you can deal with icy patches

AVOIDING FALLS AS YOU AGE Falls are more likely as people age, due to a combination of factors including a declining sense of balance, reduced muscle strength and vision and hearing issues. To stay safe, Dr. Fontanetta advises: • Practice balance and strength exercises all year. If you do lose your balance, having good muscle strength lets you recover by regaining your footing or grabbing on to a railing to support yourself. (If balance is an ongoing problem, contact the Comprehensive Balance Center at Clara Maass Medical Center.) • Have your eyes checked. Keep your vision sharp. Go to the eye doctor to make sure contacts or eyeglasses prescriptions are current. • Be mindful about medications. Everyone reacts differently to medications, so any kind can potentially impair your balance or make you unsteady. Be especially cautious when starting a new medication.

To learn more about orthopedic services at Clara Maass Medical Center, call 888.724.7123.