Written by Amber Erickson Gabbey | Published on September 30, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 30, 2013

What Are Falls?

A fall is an accident that occurs when someone loses his or her balance, trips, or slips and makes contact with the ground or another surface. Falls can be from a standing position, or they can be from a surface such as a bed or a ladder.

Falls are very common and are a leading cause of injury. According to the National Safety Council, 8.9 million emergency room visits per year are due to falls (NSC). Some falls are serious or life threatening. This can be especially true for the sick or elderly.

The very young and the elderly are most at risk for falls. The elderly often lose strength, flexibility, and balance with age. Children have not yet fully developed strength and flexibility. These factors make falls more common.

What Causes Falls?

Falls can be caused by a variety of factors. Often, a fall is a result of a lack of balance. Poor health and certain diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, can cause balance problems. Nervous system disorders, thyroid issues, and circulation problems are also known to affect balance. Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs can also impact balance, leading to falls.

Another cause of falls is dizziness. This can result from illness, eye problems, hearing issues, or intoxication. Certain medications can cause side effects like dizziness and a loss of balance. These medications include those for high blood pressure, insomnia, diabetes, or depression.

Falls are common in walkways with debris or clutter, on uneven surfaces, wet surfaces, or stairs.

What Are the Risks of a Fall?

Falls always carry the risk of serious injury. Risks are especially serious for the elderly. Falls are a common cause of broken bones, particularly hip fractures, for people with osteoporosis or fragile bones. In the elderly, these types of injuries are difficult to treat and often don’t completely heal. This may lead to a long-term lack of mobility and chronic pain.

In otherwise healthy people, falls can cause injuries including muscle strains, joint sprains, broken bones, cuts, bruises, and head injuries. The severity of the injury depends on the type of fall, the distance fallen, and the surface landed on.

If you suspect that a person who has fallen has a bone fracture, a concussion, or another type of serious injury, seek medical attention.

Preventing Falls

There are many ways to prevent falls.

It is important to exercise regularly and maintain muscle and bone strength. You can maintain bone strength with weight-bearing exercises and by getting enough calcium and vitamin D. Yoga and other physical activities can help to improve balance. 

At home, remove any obstacles in walkways and make sure that all areas are properly lit. Stairwells should have handrails for safety. Use nonslip mats under rugs, and clean up any spills or leaking water immediately. If you have children, install gates at the top and bottom of staircases.

Wear shoes that have proper grip, and avoid uneven areas such as cracked sidewalks and cobblestone paths.

Get your eyesight and hearing checked every year. Talk to your doctor if you have problems with your feet or legs that could cause unsteadiness.

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