MS and the Art of Falling

Everyone knows that falling is a serious problem for the elderly. It is also a concern for those of us with Multiple Sclerosis. We can blame gravity all we want but that changes nothing. This is all very simple. If you have mobility problems due to MS, you will fall. Your only hope is that, if you are going down, you do it correctly.

Falling with MS Is Not Necessarily About Balance

Whenever I spoke about my MS, I would tell people that I had an issue with balance. Without my cane, I could lose my balance and down I would go. One day I realized that my falling problem has nothing to do with balance. My body is really good at telling that me I’m off balance. What my body is not good at is putting itself back in balance. MS is to blame for that.

Regaining One’s Balance Is Simple for the Healthy

In your early years, you progressed from crawling to standing to walking to running. Somewhere along that path, your movement became a reflex. You decide you want to go someplace and your body makes it happen. You don’t need to consciously tell your legs to move in a particular way. There is no need to plan your movement to finish the trip on your feet.

With MS, that’s no longer the case. You can’t depend on your body to automatically do anything. For example, many people with MS (like me) develop something similar to foot drop. This is a condition where ankle weakness makes it difficult to raise the front of your foot. With this condition, walking without falling takes concentration. However, if you are standing and your reflexes detect that you are off balance, those reflexes will quickly move your leg to catch you. In the old days, it would have been a non-event. With drop foot, you are likely to catch your toe on the floor and go down.

Learn the Correct Way To Fall

I remember reading an article some time back about a man with MS who claims to have fallen over 1,500 times. He has an old mattress in the middle of his living room floor and intentionally falls for practice. I often wonder how many people besides me thought he was a genius.

I can say with total certainty that there is no graceful way to fall. If there are people around, you are going to make a scene. Like it or not, you will be the center of attention. People will come over to help. If you aren’t hurt, you will at least be embarrassed. I remember one time when a nice lady about 20 years my senior and about one third my size asked if she could do anything to help. It must have looked bad. I thanked her.

RULE 1: Don’t hit your head and lose consciousness. If you do, someone will insist that you go to the hospital, as they should. Falling happens quickly but it is not instantaneous. Rather than wasting your time trying to avoid the fall, protect your head and try to pick a safe landing zone. Believe it or not, there is time to do that.

RULE 2: There is a lot you can learn from parachutists. The next time you have the chance, watch how parachutists land. They perform what is called a parachute landing fall. Almost every World War II movie has them. It’s not exactly like your fall but the principle is the same. Rather than have only one part of their body absorb the impact, their feet touch the ground and they roll. This way, the impact doesn’t affect just one small portion of their body.

RULE 3: Try to relax. This is easier said than done. When you realize you are going down, your body is going to get a quick shot of adrenaline. Your muscles will all stiffen. It doesn’t improve the fall but it gives you a lot of sore muscles when its over. Try to imagine yourself just collapsing in place, completely relaxed. Did I mention that this is easier said than done?

It’s Funny How You Remember Most of Your Falls

The last time I fell was in January 2018 in a hotel lobby at Disney World. It was 12:30 AM. I had a good day and decided my cane needed a rest. I was overconfident and overtired. I tried to turn and step in one motion and I went straight down. I guess my body decided that it was time to try and act healthy. My hand hit the floor and my head hit my hand. There was nobody in the lobby at the time. A couple of minutes later, a gentleman came by. I asked him to please get my wife who was waiting for me in the car outside. The EMTs who hang around Disney showed up and asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I felt OK and nothing broke. We were going home the next morning anyway so I decided to pass.

The next day we took the two-hour ride home. My wife drove and, thanks to my blood thinners, I had spectacular bruises on my face and hand. I had a doctor’s appointment the next day. The nurse suggested that I go to the emergency room just to get checked out. I found the waiting room full of people there with the flu. I didn’t have any serious injuries from the fall but I did come home with the flu.

The Secret Is To Be Careful and Avoid Falling

There is no smart way to fall. Every time I’ve done it, I reflect back on the fact that it happened because I did something stupid. Will I fall again? I hope not but, as the disease progresses, it becomes more likely. As of right now, I haven’t fallen for one year in a row. Here’s hoping that I can extend my streak to two.

Joe Harkins