Walk Like a Penguin: Anti-Slip Tips for People with Muscle Disease

People with MD have an increased risk of falling and decreased ability to recover muscle after injury; these strategies and products can help in ice and snow

Article Highlights:
  • The slippery truth: It’s harder to keep your balance with weak muscles. Bones weakened by osteoporosis (due to inactivity or corticosteroids) are more susceptible to breaking in a fall. An injury like a broken bone may result in weaker muscles after recovery.
  • From walking like a penguin to putting chains on your shoes, anti-slip strategies and products can reduce the risk of falling in ice and snow.
by Kathy Wechsler on February 8, 2013 - 11:27am

Winter can be a beautiful time of year — especially when you're inside under a warm blanket, drinking hot cocoa and looking out the window at the glistening white and the snow-coated branches. Unfortunately, most people have to carry out their daily lives regardless of slippery conditions.

Slipping and falling are hazards for everyone in winter weather, but for people with neuromuscular diseases, it's crucial to be extra careful around snow and ice.

Neuromuscular disease and falling

“Neuromuscular patients have less ability to restabilize after slipping on ice because of muscle weakness, insufficient strength and insufficient coordination to recover their center of balance,” says Deborah F. Gelinas, director of the MDA Clinic at the Michigan State University Clinical Center in East Lansing, and director of clinical neuroscience research for the Hauenstein Neuroscience Center in Grand Rapids.

Falling can be especially dangerous for less physically active people with neuromuscular disease, Gelinas said, because they tend to have more osteoporosis and are at greater risk of breaking a hip, spraining an ankle or fracturing a bone.

An injury like a broken bone, with a long recovery period, can leave muscles permanently weaker than they were before.

“Muscles quickly decondition when not used,” says Gelinas. “It takes only a few days, so if an MDA patient is nonambulatory for a few weeks, they may not get back to baseline. Recovery depends to some degree on the diagnosis and the rate of decline with that diagnosis. Many forms of muscular dystrophy cannot regenerate new muscle easily or well.”

Since preventing injury is crucial, here are some general hints to help you avoid slipping and falling.

Think ahead

Have a plan: Know what you will do if you slip and fall.

Carry your lifeline: Always carry your cell phone with emergency contact numbers, even if you're just going out to get the mail. One way to keep a cell phone handy is to attach it to a lanyard and wear it around your neck.

Slow down and focus: Take your time on icy and snowy surfaces. It's better to be late than to slip and fall because you're in a hurry. Stay focused — don't get distracted using your cell phone.

Be willing to ask for help: Sometimes all you need is a steady arm to help you safely across a slippery sidewalk or parking lot. Most people are happy to offer assistance if asked.

Dress for success

Slip-proof your footwear: Look for boots with rubber or neoprene composite grip soles and boots with built-in ankle support.

Traction aids such as ice cleats (spikes that bite into ice and snow) and chains (which grip) can be easily attached to the bottom of almost any form of footwear. Companies such as Surefoot, ICEtrekkers, Kahtoola and Yaktrax sell cleats and chains online and at outdoor equipment stores such as REI or Summit Hut. Prices range from $14 to $60.

Keep your hands free: Avoid carrying heavy things such as boxes or even big purses, as they may throw you off balance. Keep hands out of pockets and ready to break a fall.

Use more assistive equipment: Gelinas advises patients who normally use a cane to use a walker instead to gain extra stability; if you normally use a walker, this is the time to use a wheelchair.

Decrease the risks

Grit and clear your walkways (but mind the pooch): Rock salt creates traction and helps melt snow and ice, but it’s tough on lawns and incredibly harsh on the paws of service dogs and pets. Some lawn- and pet friendly traction-enhancers include cat litter, coffee grounds and tea grounds. Other de-icing solutions and pellets that are safe for pets and environmentally friendly can be found online, and at pet, hardware and discount department stores.

The best way to clear the walk: Pay a neighborhood kid to shovel it.

Rattle the railings: If your house has steps leading up to the door, test the hand railings ahead of time to ensure that they can support your weight if you start to fall.

Change where and how you walk

Beware of steps: Steps are difficult to keep clear and tend to build up ice easily. Always use handrails and plant your feet firmly on each step.

Avoid shortcuts: Always walk in designated walkways because taking shortcuts over frozen areas can be risky.

Walk like a penguin:  When walking on ice, point your feet out, take shorter shuffling steps and extend your arms from your sides to improve and maintain balance. Consciously keep your center of gravity directly over your feet.

Take care getting out of the car: Sometimes ice is invisible, so always test potentially icy parking lots with your foot before exiting your vehicle. If the ground is coated with ice, consider parking somewhere else. Brace yourself on the vehicle’s door and seat back for stability before standing.

The best defenses against slipping and falling on snowy and icy surfaces, says Gelinas, are “good judgment and caution.”

Note: For more tips on staying upright when walking, no matter the weather, see All Fall Down: Staying Upright with a Neuromuscular Disease.

Service dogs should have proper footwear in the winter to protect their paws from the painful effects of ice and snow. Frozen surfaces can cause cracked and sore pads and blisters that can lead to infections. Salt and de-icing chemicals also can damage their paws.

Adjustable boots and booties provide protection against winter conditions. Protective footwear for dogs is sold online by companies such as Keep Doggie Safe, Ultra Paws, Muttluks and Ruffwear, and also can be found in some pet retail stores such as PetSmart and Petco. They range in price from $14-$90, depending on the quality of the material used.

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