Physical Therapy Guide to Falls
Falls and a fear of falling can diminish your ability to lead a full and independent life. A fall can result in unwanted outcomes, including injury, loss of independence, and decreased ability to do the things that are most important to you. You can prevent falling by doing physical activities you enjoy and working with a physical therapist to improve your balance, muscle strength, and endurance.
Although 1 in every 4 older adults falls each year, falling is not a part of normal aging. A physical therapist can help you assess your risk factors and develop a plan to address them and remain independent by:
- Designing an individualized plan for your fall-prevention needs.
- Helping you make your home as safe as possible.
- Educating you about the medical risk factors associated with falls.
- Providing you with appropriate exercises and balance training.
- Working with other health care professionals to address any underlying medical conditions that could increase your fall risk.
- Providing you with recommendations on appropriate community programs.
Physical therapists are movement experts. They improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To find a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.
What Are Falls?
A fall is defined as any event that leads to an unplanned, unexpected contact with a supporting surface, such as the floor or a piece of furniture, that is not the result of a push or shove or the result of a medical event, such as a heart attack or fainting.
A near-fall is a stumble or loss of balance that would result in a fall if you were unable to catch yourself.
There are lots of factors that can increase your risk for falls, including:
- History of a previous fall.
- Being female.
- Having a sedentary lifestyle.
- Being in overall poor health.
- Recent hospitalization.
- Advanced age.
- Difficulty with walking or keeping your balance.
- Leg weakness.
- Becoming fatigued easily.
- Limited flexibility.
- Problems with your vision or skin (touch) sensation.
- Getting dizzy when you stand up from sitting or lying down (orthostatic hypotension).
- Medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, Parkinson disease, or Alzheimer disease.
- Trouble with your memory and thinking.
- Joint pain or arthritis.
- Taking too many medications or taking certain types of medications.
- Depression and/or anxiety.
- Home hazards such as throw rugs, poor lighting, or a lack of handrails on stairs.
- Inappropriate footwear.
- Inappropriate use of a walker or a cane.
The more risk factors you have, the greater your risk of falling.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Unlike with other medical conditions, there is no single test that can predict a fall. Adults aged 65 years and older should be screened by their primary care provider on a yearly basis to help determine their risk for falling. Additionally, if you are worried about falling, have had a loss of balance, or have had a fall, you should see a physical therapist.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
A physical therapist 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:
- Review of your medical history.
- Review of your medications.
- Simple vision test.
- Home safety assessment.
- Simple test of your thinking abilities.
- Check of your heart rate and blood pressure measurements at rest and while you change positions (from sitting/lying to standing).
- Foot and footwear assessment.
- Balance, strength, and walking ability assessment.
Based on the evaluation results, your physical therapist will design a plan that is tailored to your needs. Your treatment plan may include:
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 as well as recover from a loss of balance, including exercises such as single-leg standing, or holding your balance while performing an action like reciting the alphabet.
Walking and moving. A prescribed exercise program should include a walking program. However, starting a walking program with poor balance can actually increase your risk for falling. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist before you initiate a walking program to make sure that it is the right choice for you.
While working with a physical therapist, you may be asked to perform activities, such as:
- Dance steps.
- Walking in circles.
- "Figure 8" exercises to strengthen the core abdominal muscles that help stabilize your body.
- Working through 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 perform another task, such as counting backward, engaging in a conversation, or carrying a bag of groceries.
Strength training. Strengthening is a key element of fall prevention and is very effective in preventing falls, especially when combined with balance exercises. Your physical therapist will design an individualized strengthening program that focuses on specific muscle groups to help improve your standing balance, your balance while walking, and your ability to recover from a loss of balance.
Endurance training. Aerobic exercise is physical exercise of relatively low intensity and long duration; it can help improve almost every aspect of your health, especially your endurance. Your physical therapist can work with you to plan a safe aerobic program, such as a walking or an aquatic program, to address your specific needs. The program may start with as little as 10-minute sessions and progress to 30-minute sessions, as your endurance improves.
Pain management. Pain management plays a crucial role in older adults’ risk for falling and quality of life. Certain exercises, such as strengthening and aerobic exercises, are appropriate interventions to relieve pain in addition to decreasing fall risk. Treatments need to be modified appropriately, depending on each individual’s source of pain. Physical therapy has been shown to help individuals reduce or eliminate their need for pain medication, including opioids.
Education. Your physical therapist will take the time to explain how you can best manage your own risks for falling. Your therapist also may talk to you about the best activities to help maintain your quality of life, and offer educational resources, such as:
- National Council on Aging. Falls prevention. Accessed February 2, 2018.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STEADI – older adult fall prevention. Accessed February 2, 2018.
- Fall Prevention Center of Excellence. Accessed February 2, 2018.
Fear management. It is important for you to talk with your physical therapist about the fear you have of falling. The therapist will work with you to build your confidence and help you get back to the activities that you may be avoiding because you are afraid of falling. Your individual assessment can also identify the activities that you actually should avoid to stay safe.
Community programs. Several community-based fall-prevention programs are promoted by the Injury Prevention and Control Center of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with the Administration on Aging. These programs help people:
- Reduce their fear of falling.
- Set goals for increasing their physical activity.
- Make their homes more safe.
- Exercise more to increase their strength and balance.
These programs often are led by volunteer coaches. Your physical therapist may be involved in setting up one of these programs or can help you find programs in your area that are best for you.
Personal recommendations. Your physical therapist can provide personal recommendations based on your condition and goals to help you:
- Increase the safety of your home environment by making changes, such as removing throw rugs or clutter.
- Adjust how you complete your daily tasks to reduce your fall risk.
- Choose appropriate footwear.
- Learn about proper nutrition, improving your sleep schedule, and other general information that can help reduce your fall risk.
- Meet with other health care providers when appropriate.
What Kind of Physical Therapist Do I Need?
All physical therapists are prepared through education and experience to treat people who have a fear of falling, and balance problems. You may want to consider:
- A physical therapist who is experienced in treating people with neurological problems or treating the geriatric population. Some physical therapists have a practice with a neurological or a vestibular (balance) rehabilitation focus or run an interdisciplinary fall-prevention clinic.
- A physical therapist who is a board-certified clinical specialist or who completed a residency or fellowship in neurologic physical therapy or geriatrics. This physical therapist has advanced knowledge, experience, and skills that may apply to your condition.
You can find physical therapists who have these and other credentials by using Find a PT, the online tool built by the American Physical Therapy Association to help you search for physical therapists with specific clinical expertise in your geographic area.
General tips when you're looking for a physical therapist:
- Get recommendations from family,friends, or other health care providers.
- When you contact a physical therapy clinic for an appointment, ask about the physical therapists’ experience in helping people with falls and balance problems.
- Be prepared to describe your symptoms in as much detail as possible, and say what makes your symptoms worse.
The American Physical Therapy Association believes that consumers should have access to information that could help them make health care decisions and also prepare them for a visit with their health care provider.
The following articles provide some of the best scientific evidence related to managing fall risk and preventing falls. The articles report recent research and give an overview of the standards of practice for treatment both in the United States and internationally. The article titles are linked either to a PubMed abstract of the article or to free full text so that you can read it or print out a copy to bring with you to your health care provider.
American Geriatrics Society/British Geriatrics Society. AGS/BGS clinical practice guideline: prevention of falls in older persons. Accessed December 24, 2019.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Important facts about falls. Updated February 10, 2017. Accessed February 5, 2018.
Lusardi MM, Fritz S, Middleton A, et al. Determining risk of falls in community dwelling older adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis using posttest probability. J Geriatr Phys Ther. 2017;40 (1):1–36. Free Article.
Nematollahi A, Kamali F, Ghanbari A, Etminan Z, Sobhani S. Improving balance in older people: a double-blind randomized clinical trial of three modes of balance training. J Aging Phys Act. 2016;24(2):189–195. Article Summary in PubMed.
Phelan EA, Mahoney JE, Voit JC, Stevens JA. Assessment and management of fall risk in primary care settings. Med Clin North Am. 2015;99(2):281–293. Free Article.
Avin KG, Hanke TA, Kirk-Sanchez N, et al. Management of falls in community-dwelling older adults: clinical guidance statement from the Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy of the American Physical Therapy Association. Phys Ther. 2015;95(6):815–834. Article Summary in PubMed.
Maidan I, Freedman T, Tzemah R, Giladi N, Mirelman A, Hausdorff J. Introducing a new definition of a near fall: intra-rater and inter-rater reliability. Gait Posture. 2014;39(1)645–647. Free Article.
Goodwin VA, Abbott RA, Whear R, et al. Multiple component interventions for preventions falls and fall-related injuries among older people: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Geriatr. 2014;14:15. Free Article.
Grabiner MD, Crenshaw JR, Hurt CP, Rosenblatt NJ, Troy KL. Exercise-based fall prevention: can you be a bit more specific? Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2014;42(4):161–168. Article Summary in PubMed.
Cadore EL, Pinto RS, Bottaro M, Izquierdo M. Strength and endurance training prescription in healthy and frail elderly. Aging Dis. 2014;5(3):183–195. Free Article.
Ambrose AF, Paul G, Hausdorff JM. Risk factors for falls among older adults: a review of the literature. Maturitas. 2013;75(1):51–61. Article Summary in PubMed.
El-Khoury F, Cassou B, Charles MA, Dargent-Molina P. The effect of fall prevention exercise programmes on fall induced injuries in community dwelling older adults: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BMJ. 2013;347:f6234. Free Article.
Cadore EL, Rodríguez-Mañas L, Sinclair A, Izquierdo M. Effects of different exercise interventions on risk of falls, gait ability, and balance in physically frail older adults: a systematic review. Rejuvenation Res. 2013;16(2):105–114. Free Article.
Abdulla A, Adams N, Bone M, et al. Guidance on the management of pain in older people. Age Ageing. 2013;42 Suppl 1:i1–i57. Article Summary in PubMed.
Studenski S, Perera S, Patel K, et al. Gait speed and survival in older adults. JAMA. 2011;305(1):50–58. Free Article.
Lord SR, Smith ST, Menant JC. Vision and falls in older people: risk factors and intervention strategies. Clin Geriatr Med. 2010;26:569–581. Article Summary on PubMed.
Gschwind YJ, Kressig RW. Gait disorders and falls. GeroPsych. 2010;23(1):21–32.
Tinetti ME, Kumar C. The patient who falls: "It's always a trade-off." JAMA. 2010;303:258–266. Free Article.
Gillespie LD, Robertson MC, Gillespie WJ, et al. Interventions for preventing falls in older people living in the community. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009;(2):CD007146. Article Summary in PubMed.
Silsupadol P, Shumway-Cook A, Lugade V, et al. Effects of single-task versus dual-task training on balance performance in older adults: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009;90:381–387. Article Summary on PubMed.
Sherrington C, Whitney JC, Lord SR, et al. Effective exercise for the prevention of falls: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2008;56:2234–2243. Article Summary on PubMed.
Muir SW, Berg K, Chesworth B, Speechley M. Use of the Berg Balance Scale for predicting multiple falls in community-dwelling elderly people: a prospective study. Phys Ther. 2008;88:449–459. Article Summary on PubMed.
Orr R, Raymond J, Fiatarone Singh M. Efficacy of progressive resistance training on balance performance in older adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Sports Med. 2008;38:317–343. Article Summary on PubMed.
Silsupadol P, Siu KC, Shumway-Cook A, Woollacott MH. Training of balance under single- and dual-task conditions in older adults with balance impairment. Phys Ther. 2006;86:269–281. Article Summary on PubMed.
Shumway-Cook A, Baldwin M, Polissar NL, Gruber W. Predicting the probability for falls in community-dwelling older adults. Phys Ther. 1997;77:812–819. Article Summary on PubMed.
*PubMed is a free online resource developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). PubMed contains millions of citations to biomedical literature, including citations in the National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE database.
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