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From Athletes to the Elderly: The Science Behind Trips and Falls

Scientists are finding that maintaining stability and balance with each step we take requires complex coordination of foot placement, arm movement, trunk angle and neck and head motion. This is due to the fact that no step is exactly the same. Every time the foot hits the ground, it hits it at a different angle. Therefore, our bodies have to make minor adjustments to accommodate these variations. Other research is exploring how the brain controls our balance. This is how we react to a stumble – our body is compensating to this reaction by helping us not to fall. All of this research on balance and stability could potentially be used to help improve training techniques for athletes. It can also be used to help doctors predict their patient’s risk of falling. Falls are the number one death and injury among people age 65 and older. More than 2 million people were admitted to the ER in 2010 due to a slip and fall accident. The body has three main systems that help us stay balanced:

  • The visual system: this system takes in information from the outside world and transmits it to the brain.
  • The proprioceptive system: this system incorporates sensory systems throughout the body and tells us how the body’s part are oriented relative to each other.
  • The vestibular system: this system focuses mainly on how the head is moving.

If at least 2 of these systems are not working properly, people tend to have difficulty remaining physically stable. As people age, the vestibular system becomes less sensitive, which makes them rely on their visual system more. The visual system is relatively slow compared to the vestibular system. As a result of the loss of sensitivity in the vestibular system, older people do not process information as quickly so they often misstep and stumble. A recent study over three years showed that older people often tripped and fell due to incorrect weight shifting. 41% of participants in this study fell due to this mishap. Learn more about the science of trips and falls. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured in a slip and fall accident, contact us for help.