Some get injured, while others go unhurt — often claiming it’s because they knew how to fall.
According to paratroopers, stunt professionals, physical therapists and martial arts instructors, there is indeed a “right way” to fall — and it can save you a lot of grief if you know how to do it.
Although often associated with older people, falls occur at any age and are the most common cause of injury seen in emergency rooms in the United States. The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality estimates that falls cause more than a third of injury-related emergency room visits, around 7.9 million a year.
“As physical therapists we talk a lot about preventing falls, but what we don’t talk about is what to do when you actually do fall,” said Jessica Schwartz, a physical therapist in New York City who trains athletes and people with prosthetic limbs to fall without hurting themselves. “It’s almost inevitable you are going to fall, so you really should know what to do.”
“Have you seen those slip and fall cartoons where the characters fall flat on their back or face? Don’t do that,” said Dr. Schwartz. “You’ll hit your head like a coconut and get a concussion,” and the reverse motion, or bounce, of your head after
Paratroopers’ goal is to fall sideways in the direction the wind is carrying them — in no way resisting the momentum of the fall. When the balls of their feet barely reach the ground, they immediately distribute the impact in rapid sequence up through the calf to the thigh and buttocks. Then they roll over on the latissimus dorsi muscle, the large, flat muscle running laterally down the side of your back, and kick their feet over, shifting their weight so they end up supine with legs bent in front of them.
The procedure is strikingly similar to how martial arts practitioners learn to take a fall when they are, say, thrown over someone’s shoulder or have their legs knocked out from under them. “I would say the principles we follow are: Accept that you’re falling and go with it, round your body, and don’t stiffen and distribute the energy so you take the fall in the widest area possible,” said Paul Schreiner, a black belt jiu jitsu instructor at Marcelo Garcia Academy in New York City.
While martial arts falls often have a gymnastic aspect, with rather elegant and snappy kinds of somersaults, it’s still all about spreading out the force of impact. “There may be an aesthetic component, but what it does is save the body,” said Mr. Schreiner. “If you don’t take the fall in any single place, you’ll still walk out sore, but you’ll walk out of there.”
Difficult as it may sound as you’re hurtling toward the ground — medical bills and disability flashing through your mind — experts said it’s important to relax as you fall. You’re less likely to hurt yourself if you soften up all your muscles and exhale. Rigidity is your enemy, while pliability is your friend. “As unfair as it is, that’s why people who are drunk” tend to be the ones who “don’t get hurt in car crashes,” said Mr. Inouye. “They are loose and just flop around.”
Of course, you will be better able to loosen up, pivot to your side, tuck and roll if you are in good physical condition. “If you have a room full of soccer players and computer desk workers and go around knocking people over, you can bet the soccer players are going to be less likely to get hurt because of their superior strength, agility and coordination,” said Erik Moen, a physical therapist in Kenmore, Wash.
But that doesn’t mean you have to be an elite athlete or paratrooper to fall the “right way.” Young children are arguably the best fallers because they have yet to develop fear or embarrassment, so they just tumble and roll without tensing up and trying to catch themselves.
Physical therapists can be helpful in assessing your weaknesses and prescribing do-at-home exercises to improve your strength and agility (for example, jumping from side to side and on and off platforms or steps) so that you will be better able to execute a fall as well as lessen the risk that you will fall in the first place.
An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of emergency room visits caused by falls. They account for more than a third of injury-related visits, not of all visits.
Image by Kathy Osborn