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By: Menashe Rakhamimov,

Cold temperatures present an assortment of hazards and risks as we spend more time outdoors

Icy roads.cold-induced stiffness and reduced visibility are some of the many risks we experience in Canada or other cold countries. These factors make it more likely for people to be prone to falls or injuries, especially if we cannot avoid commuting through slippery conditions. At a young age, we may not consider winter as a harsh environment. We are encouraged to play and enjoy the snowy weather, but for the elderly stepping outside can lead to serious injury.

Seniors have less balance, may have poorer visibility and less stable joints. These traits make it more likely for them to fall on icy roads or sidewalks. The main concept involved here is our proprioception, which is defined as the awareness of our self-movement and body-position. As we age, our proprioception deteriorates, and there is a poorer feedback system of our body position through space. The decline of this feedback system combined with other limitations such as weaker muscles, reduced vision, and more brittle joints make it a lot more problematic for seniors facing slippery roads.

Besides the cold weather, seniors are already more prone to fall and injury based on other factors. Seniors may have less sensitivity in their feet, ankles, knees, and hips as a result of arthritis. Arthritis is the inflammation and pain in our joints and progresses gradually as we age. If seniors take medications for arthritis or other ailments, side effects such as dizziness can increase the risk of falls as well. Lastly, seniors may suffer from an unsteady gait due to progressive muscle weakness if they don’t practice healthy exercise habits. Muscles lose their elasticity, and how they recoil from lengthening also worsens with age, which is the reflex response the muscles need to protect themselves after a quick or sudden movement.

Due to this, it is no surprise that seniors are already much more at risk once the cold, icy weather sets in. In fact, every one out of three adults aged 65 or older falls once the weather drops. Also, according to the Canadian Health Institute of Health Information, 70% of fall-related hospitalizations occur during January, February, and March. What could be more alarming is that older Canadians are nine times more likely to suffer an injury from falls leading to hospitalization or death, and for those 75 and older, falls are the leading cause of injury-related death.

There are many ways seniors can decrease their chances of being at risk for falls. Some of the obvious solutions are staying indoors, wearing the proper footwear, planning your commute, and being aware of the groundwork ahead of you. However, another important solution is keeping up with regular exercise. Proprioception significantly improves with exercise since it increases muscle strength, motor control, and joint stability. Exercise in which seniors are involved with reactive movements such as tennis may also improve their reflex which may make a marginal difference in protecting themselves once an unexpected fall occurs.

How Osteopathy Can Help

Joint stability that worsens due to conditions like arthritis may be improved with the manual treatment of osteopathy.  Consecutive osteopathic treatments that focus on musculoskeletal realignment combined with physical exercise could help seniors over time. The synovial fluid that lubricates your joints slowly erodes with age, which may lead to the development of arthritis bone-on-bone contact. Osteopathy’s joint mobilization and traction techniques can help manage arthritis symptoms.

RELATED: Osteopathy and Low Back Pain

In Osteopathy, treatment of the joints is a primary focus, and it involves using joint distraction techniques. The joint is repeatedly distracted, which is essentially the opening and creating space between two opposing bones. This helps encourage the synovial fluid to enter the joint space and re-lubricate the joint. Not only does this improve the mobility and range of motion, the joint can actively go through, but it also improves the neural response traveling from the joint to the brain.  When facing a sudden change in direction or pressure which is involved when a person may be going through a fall, it is that feedback to the brain that affects how the joint and related muscle groups will instinctively guard the body.

The first aim of osteopathic treatment for patients with arthritis is to help improve joint mobility, then secondly to regaining joint strength. This is done by the involvement of consecutive therapeutic exercises done in osteopathic treatment. Osteopathy acknowledges that seniors who have limited strength and who are more prone to injury may not be able to perform certain types of resistance work The osteopathic practitioner constructs the most appropriate and safe therapeutic exercise for the patient to practice once they see that full mobility is regained. The benefit here, however, is that the joint mobilization, joint distraction techniques, and subsequent therapeutic exercise for that joint and muscle group are done directly with the practitioner present. Essentially the osteopathic treatment is almost completely hands-on, and the patients remain under constant supervision and control through their rehabilitation work.

So, once the cold weather sets in, and the roads with snow and ice, seniors should be extra careful. They can take the proper steps in regaining their ability to balance, move, and regain control if a fall may occur. Through osteopathy, their sense of their environment can improve as those joints, the ligaments between them and the muscles around them could stabilize to help protect them from serious injuries.


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