“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” calls the voice in the classic TV commercial. Most of us have seen it, and maybe we’ve even made fun of it—with laughter that’s a little nervous. But the fact is, the lucky ones among us will live to a great age and, when we do, falls will become not a laughing matter but a serious threat to our mobility and independence.
More than 1.6 million older adults in the United States go to emergency departments for fall-related injuries each year. Among older adults, falls are the leading cause of fractures, hospital admissions for trauma, loss of independence and deaths due to injury. Younger adults are also at risk, especially if there are physical problems that tend to disrupt balance.
To help people avoid falls, Saint Barnabas Medical center recently established a Balance center. Its goal is to help individuals who experience lightheadedness, dizziness (one type of which is also referred to as vertigo), ongoing nausea and other balance-related problems, which may be caused by medications, infections, inner-ear disorders and maladies rooted in the brain, such as traumatic brain injury or a tumor.
“This is a very significant problem, especially in the elderly,” says Howard Berg, M.D., medical director of the Balance center. “We want to combine testing and treatment in one program to ensure proper treatment and follow-through.”
The Balance Center coordinates care among a multidisciplinary team of medical experts, including otolaryngologists, physical therapists, audiologists and vestibular diagnostic technicians, who offer diagnosis and targeted treatment recommendations such as balance training, vestibular rehabilitation, therapeutic exercise and fall prevention strategies.
The center was created this past April because research revealed that more and more people require these services, says Maria Dimi, Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s administrative director for respiratory and neurodiagnostic services. “Our population is getting older, and we found that more people need this program to diagnose and pinpoint balance issues,” she says.
Many balance issues can be corrected through physical rehab, says Tom Modica, director of rehabilitation. “As we get older, we experience deterioration in strength, endurance and proprioception—awareness of where one’s limbs are in space,” he says. “Weak muscles and endurance can be strengthened. Proprioception can be improved, often just by making people aware of it, and then by making them safer with regular use of a cane or a walker.” Finally, he says, homes can be made less hazardous with modifications such as removing obstacles or clutter, installing grab bars and padded shower seats, removing flimsy rugs and covering slippery floor surfaces with non-skid mats or adhesive carpeting instead, and repairing or replacing areas of walls, railings, banisters, floors or furniture that pose an identifiable danger.
“We hope to raise awareness that this issue should be faced head-on, not simply passed off as an inevitable risk of aging,” says Dr. Berg. “By lowering the chances of falls, we can improve the quality of life for a lot of people.”