Balance and Falls

Do you worry that your elderly parent is at risk for taking a fall? Or perhaps you have taken a tumble in the past. The risk of falling can be very serious, as falls can diminish your ability to lead an active and independent life. Whether you are the one at risk, or you have a loved one with the potential to fall, physical therapy can be a safe method of alleviating your chances of falling. About one third of people over the age of 65 and almost half of people over the age of 80 will fall at least once this year.

Physical therapists can help you reduce your risk of falling by:
– Assessing your risk of falling
– Helping you make your home as safe as possible
– Educating you about the medical risk factors linked to falls
– Designing individualized exercises and balance training
– Working with other health care professionals and community services to create programs for people who want to reduce their risk of falling

Common Reasons for Falls
– Being 80 years old or older
– Leg muscle weakness
– Difficulty with balance or walking
– Vision problems (cataracts, macular degeneration, wearing bifocals)
– Medical conditions that limit your ability to get around, such as Parkinson disease, stroke, or diabetes
– Conditions that cause confusion, such as dementia and Alzheimer disease
– Depression
– Taking more than 4 medications at the same time
– Taking psychoactive medications (such as sedatives or antidepressants)
– Using a cane or other walking device
– Home hazards (throw rugs, pets underfoot)
– Low blood pressure

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

If you are worried about falling or if you recently had a fall, we can conduct a brief check (“screening”) of your fall risk. If the screening shows that you are at risk, the therapist will perform a thorough evaluation, including:
– A review of your medical history
– A review of your medications
– A simple vision test
– A home safety assessment
– A simple screen of your thinking abilities
– A check of your heart rate
– Blood pressure measurements while you change positions (from sitting to standing)
– Feet and footwear assessment
– Assessment of any nervous system disorders, such as stroke or Parkinson disease

The therapist also will:
– Measure your leg strength, using simple tests such as timing how long it takes you to rise from a chair
– Determine how quickly and steadily you walk
– Assess your balance—for instance, by having you stand on one leg or rise from a chair and walk
– Use special tests to measure your balance

Based on the evaluation results, your physical therapist will design an exercise and training program to improve your balance and strength. A recent systematic review of many published studies found that exercise-based programs in the home or in group settings are effective in preventing falls. These programs are especially effective when balance exercises are performed in a standing position without using much arm support.

Balance Training

Balance training has been shown to be an important and effective part of falls prevention. Your physical therapist will design exercises that challenge your ability to keep your balance, including such exercises as single-leg standing.

Walking and Moving

When people walk very slowly or are unsteady, they are at risk of falling. Your physical therapist can improve your walking ability by having you do such activities as dance steps, walking in circles, “figure 8” exercises to strengthen the core abdominal muscles that help stabilize your body, and perform on an obstacle course.

Doing More Than One Thing at the Same Time—Safely

Older adults who have difficulty walking and talking at the same time are at a higher risk of falling. To help increase your safety during daily activities, your physical therapist can design a “dual-task” training program. This kind of training will challenge you to maintain walking speed while you do another task, such as counting backwards, engaging in a conversation, or carrying a bag of groceries.

Strength Training

Strengthening exercises are a key element of fall prevention when they are done in conjunction with balance training. Your physical therapist will design strengthening exercises that focus on your leg and the muscles used in maintaining posture.

Aerobic Training

Aerobic exercise is physical exercise of relatively low intensity and long duration; it can help improve almost every aspect of your health. Walking is one of the safest forms of aerobic exercise, no matter what kind of problem you have. Once you have begun your strengthening and balance program, your physical therapist will know when you’re ready to start aerobic exercise. Depending on your ability, the therapist might have you do three 30-minute walking sessions each week.


We will take the time to explain to you how to best manage your own risks for falling. Your therapist also may talk to you about the best activities for you to do to maintain your quality of life.

Fear Management

It will be important for you to talk with your physical therapist about any fear of falling that you have. Your therapist will work with you to determine whether there are activities you should avoid. Your therapist will also work with you to determine whether your fear may be unfounded and whether there are activities that you should be doing to keep strong and help your balance.

If you would like more information on how physical therapy can help you or a loved one with balance and falls, contact our clinic at 616.997.6172 and one of our therapists would be happy to discuss your condition with you. You may also attend our annual Women’s Health Open House, being held May 16, 2013 at our Sparta clinic. Register and get more details at

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