This winter's thawing and refreezing has made for treacherous ice conditions on sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, and residents beware: The most dangerous time for slips and falls is just around the corner.

“The month of April is statistically the most common month for falls,” said Michael Steichen, director of rehabilitation services with the Essentia Health Clinic in Brainerd. “People become so deconditioned in the winter months that when they do decide to venture out is when they fall because they have decreased their muscle strength and agility.”

“Winter ice around here is a big problem,” said Theresa Eclov, executive director of Faith in Action for Cass County. “Things don't thaw out for a long time. This year the snow buildup into ice has been bad. Rutted ice makes it hard to walk. The biggest thing with fall prevention with older adults especially is that as we age, our balance can be challenged. Older adults are way more likely to lose their balance and fall than younger folks. You don't need the help of ice to fall.”

The consequences of a fall can range from a minor injury to something worse.

“Usually the injuries we see are where one leg slides out and someone sprains their groin muscles,” Steichen said. “A little low grade stretching before venturing out makes a big difference in keeping those muscles stretched out a bit.”

Other common fall results include injuries to the knees or to the hands, including fractures to the radius in the wrist. The consequences can be particularly dire for elderly individuals who acquire a major break from a fall.

“When a person falls, the older you get the more brittle your bones are, the more likely you are to actually break something,” Eclov said. "Older adults, I think 75 and up, who fall and break a hip or something that puts them in a hospital and maybe a rehab center for recovery, the statistics on them never coming home again are really high. It's like half.”

“A fall can make a big difference, especially in where you live,” Steichen said. “If you have had a fall, it can make a difference in whether you are safe to stay in your own residence or your family members and you decide it's not safe to have you living on your own anymore. That makes a big difference.”

Though this may convince some that staying inside is the best way to avoid a fall, becoming sedentary during the icy winter months can actually make falls more common and injuries more serious.

“As a therapist we definitely recommend that people do venture out in the winter,” Steichen said. “In the winter months people tend to stay indoors and become very deconditioned.”

“The whole goal is don't fall down,” Eclov said. “Work very hard to develop your balance, maintain your balance. There are exercises as part of a lot of senior exercise programs that really work on balance or strength so you don't fall down.”

Keeping your body healthy through activity can improve balance and agility. Maintaining an active lifestyle can reduce likelihood of a fall, reduce severity of injuries and improve recovery from injuries.

The best bet is to take precautions. One highly recommended precaution is for people to carry a simple tool called a sand shaker. These are recommended by Faith in Action of Cass County, the Cass County TRIAD and experts from Essentia Health.

“Working with the Matter of Balance class we encourage people to carry shakers,” Steichen said. “They are a little bottle with sand in them. As soon as they open their car door they sprinkle a little sand so as soon as they step out of the car they have something to stand on.”

The shakers are recommended for cars or by doors into homes. Many of the shakers are made from creamer bottles or peanut butter jars so they are easier to handle than, say, a bag of sand or salt.

“Having a container of sand in your car means you can open your door and before you even step out, you use your sand shaker to sprinkle sand all over so you won't slip, then you help your rider in or out and you know they will have that extra something to help grip so they won't slip either,” Eclov said. “It's become a big part of safety precautions we encourage our volunteers to use while working in our community.”

Eclov said they got the idea for sand shakers from the Cass County TRIAD, a collaborative group of seniors and law enforcement. Sand shakers have been a big part of TRIAD's efforts throughout the area and represent a project the group plans to expand.

“We are working on kind of amping that project up a bit,” said Pauline Fahey, with the TRIAD board. “We have been collaborating with the bank and looking at having a better way to get recycled plastic containers. We have taken a step and have sand available all the time at the Hackensack HUB. We also have shakers available there, ones that are filled and also if people want to bring in their empty ones to refill them.”

The group would also like to get sand stations set up in other communities throughout the county.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and that is true here as well. There are many tips that can be used to prevent a fall during the winter and throughout the year. Visibility is very important, so Steichen and Eclov stressed the importance of keeping glasses clean and carrying groceries and other items at your side and not in front where they may block your view of your next step.

“If you can't see what's immediately in front of you, that's a huge fall cause,” Steichen said.

In addition to shakers, Steichen suggested spreading sawdust or other grit on potentially slick surfaces in the winter. Sawdust doesn't eat into cement, but it can provide sure footing. Steichen reiterates the importance of staying active and fit.

“Do sit to stand exercises in a chair so your legs remain strong and there is a direct correlation between the strength in your legs and your endurance and balance when you're walking,” Steichen said. “We encourage people every day going from sitting to standing 10 times to keep their legs strong.”

Eclov said people should also pay attention to their footwear, which can contribute to falls as well. Medications can also be a factor when they impact sense of balance.

Anyone who is particularly at risk of fall injuries can also attend various events in the community. Bone Builders, the Cass County SHIP's September falls prevention workshop, TRIAD meetings and many more groups all discuss balance, active living and fall prevention. At the falls prevention workshop there are experts who use specific exercises to gauge someone's balance and fall risks.

“There is some kind of a protocol where you get down on the floor and get up and they kind of grade your flexibility and ability to get up,” Eclov said.

While prevention is the most important issue when it comes to fall injuries, Fahey and TRIAD also try to prepare local community members in case they do fall.

“We also have cell phone holders,” Fahey said. “While that's not directly related to preventing falls on ice, it is a reason we encourage people to carry their cell phones with them. If they do fall where there aren't close neighbors, we want them to have a way to call for help.”

That goes for when the person is in their own home or outside because falls can happen anywhere.

While prevention is especially important for seniors, it is valid for literally anyone.

“Ice is dangerous for anyone of any age if they aren't paying attention,” Eclov said.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.