She tripped over a small suitcase on the floor, and fell right into a wall. “The instant I did this, before I hit the wall, I knew what had happened,” says the 88-year-old Lang. She had broken her left hip.
Hip fractures in the elderly are common. In fact, for every 10 hip fractures, about nine occur in people over the age of 60. “Hip fractures double with every five-year increase in age after age 50,” says Sandy B. Ganz, PT, DSC, GCS, the director of rehabilitation at Amsterdam Nursing Home in New York City. By 90 years of age, one in four women and one in eight men will have fractured a hip, according to a study done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Elderly people are at a high risk for falling, which can lead to hip fractures. “They fall because they lose their coordination. They have difficulty with their eye sight and they have difficulty with their balance, and they become weak,” says Dr. Charles A. Peterson, an orthopedic surgeon at Seattle Orthopeadic and Fracture Clinic. “When they fall, they tend to have a higher frequency of fractures due to osteoporosis and weaker bones.”
The risk factors for suffering a broken hip are numerous, including:
Most often, an individual knows right away that she has broken her hip. For example, Lang was unable to stand up and was discovered by her son who happened to stop by that day. Usually severe pain is felt in the hip or groin areas and the person cannot walk. Other symptoms include stiffness, contusions or inflammation in the hip area. The leg on the the affected side may appear shorter than the other or turn outward. If the head of the hip bone is impacted onto the neck of the hip bone, the person might not know he has a broken hip, as this break can be less painful, according to Peterson.
Because hip fractures in the elderly can be life-threatening, make sure your loved one heads to a hospital immediately. Surgery to fix the fracture is usually done within 24 hours. The examining doctor can diagnose a broken hip simply from symptoms, but an x-ray or MRI will verify the break and display the fracture type.
There are two main types of hip fractures, and older people almost always undergo surgery to repair these breaks:
FEMORAL NECK FRACTURE
The femoral neck is right below the ball (or head) of the ball-and-socket hip joint. Because this type of fracture diminishes and can sometimes stop the flow of blood to the broken part of the bone, surgery is almost always done to correct it. Partial hip replacement, called hemiarthroplasty, replaces the ball and femoral neck with a metal prosthesis, usually made from stainless steel or chrome cobalt alloy. While the patient is under general or spinal anesthesia, the surgeon makes an incision. The broken head is removed, and the surgeon clears out cartilage and damaged bone from the hip socket. The new socket, which includes a ball and stem, is cemented in place. Muscles and tendons are positioned around the prosthesis and the incision is closed.If the patient has arthritis or a previous injury that has damaged the joint and they are physiologically sound, a total hip replacement may be done for a femoral neck fracture.
INTERTROCHANTERIC REGION FRACTURE
Just below the femoral neck, this is where the thigh bone juts out. The fracture runs between two bumps called trochanters. While the patient is under general or spinal anesthesia, the surgeon makes an incision on the side of the thigh. The patient’s bones are manipulated to correct their position. A large screw called a hip nail is placed along the break and up into the femoral head. This screw is held to a metal plate that is attached to the outside of the thigh using several smaller screws. This plate and screw helps the bones heal, compressing them so they grow together.A third type of break, called asubtrochanteric fracture, occurs in the thigh bone or femur, and is quite rare. The surgical repair is similar to the plate and screw system used in intertrochanteric fractures, although the recovery period is much longer.
In rare instances, people who have hip fractures do not have surgery. If someone is too sick for surgery to occur, traction or other methods are used to repair the break.
Although surgeries to repair fractures are straightforward and relatively simple fixes, complications after surgery can be dangerous. Mortality rates in the year following a hip fracture are about 25 percent. Complications include blood clots, infection, and pneumonia. With a partial hip replacement, the patient can also dislocate the prosthesis before it stabilizes. If an individual has fragile bones, the hip nail or screw may pull out of the bone. Post-surgery complications more often lead to death if a patient already suffers from another serious medical condition.
Recovery after hip surgery is a lengthy process. The typical hospital stay lasts four days to a week, but a longer stay isn’t unusual. Lang remained in the hospital for about a week, and then moved to a sub-acute rehabilitation center for a month. Now she is at home, receiving assisted care from her family, and two therapists work with her twice a week. After a hospital stay, patients can follow many different routes, depending on insurance, age, and complications. Some patients move to rehabilitiation centers or skilled nursing facilities; others receive in-home or outpatient care.
Up to 25% of community-dwelling seniors who sustain hip fractures remain in an institutional assisted care setting such as a nursing home for at least a year.
Physical and occupational therapists begin to work with recovering patients right at the hospital, helping them begin walking with assistance usually the day after surgery. “Physical therapy intervention for a hip fracture usually consists of muscle re-education, strengthening exercises, balance retraining, bed mobility, and transfer and gait training,” says Ganz. “Occupational therapy focuses on the activities of daily living: dressing, grooming, bathing, as well as balance retraining and strengthening exercises.”
The amount of therapy a patient receives depends on insurance. “Unfortunately, right about the time therapy typically ends, about four to six months post operatively, is when the patient is first physically and physiologically able to receive more intensive therapy,” says Ganz.
While a patient may recover from surgery quickly, there is a difference between healing and recovery. “After recovery, they can continue doing everything on their own to get stronger,” says Jill Heitzman, PT, DPT, GCS, FCCWS, a physical therapist at Mary Greely Rehab and Wellness in Ames, Iowa. “When they are actually healed, they are back to doing everything they want to do.” Healing, she says, typically takes nine months to a year.
About 25% of people with hip fractures will experience a full recovery and return to a semblance of their post-fall life. However, 50% will need to use a cane or walker, and about 20% of individuals who break their hip will permanently live in a nursing home. Caregivers can help ensure the best outcome by helping their loved ones adhere to their therapy regimens and taking some preventive measures such as fall-proofing their homes.
Ideally, one can prevent hip fractures in the elderly in the first place. People who have broken a hip also have a good chance of falling again. You can help by making sure your loved one’s home environment is safe, as well as seeing that she stays as healthy as possible.
Homes, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes all need to be fall-proofed. Ganz includes the following recommendations in a recently published home-hazards guide:
There are several other simple suggestions that can help prevent falls and hip fractures. People need to have regular eye-checkups; wear sensible, hard-soled flat shoes; and be mindful of medication’s side effects. Individuals can also wear hip padding to minimize the impact of a fall. A doctor can talk with your loved one about how to increase her bone density through taking supplements, including bisphosphonates for osteoporosis sufferers, calcium, vitamin D, or starting estrogen or hormone replacement therapy, says Ganz.
Exercise is imperative for preventing falls. Heitzman recommends that a regimen includes both cardio and strength training and involves exercising on different surfaces-such as carpets, stairs, and gravel-to challenge one’s balance.
Healing from a hip fracture takes time and patience. Seven weeks after her fall, Lang uses a walker to move around her apartment and the world outside. Before her accident, she occasionally used a cane for outings, saying she found it elegant. Now she looks forward to just using her cane. “They say you’ll never be exactly how you were, but you will be a pretty good facsimile of that!” says Lang.
Update: January 2018