Friday, August 14, 2009

Why Flamingos Don't Get Hip Fractures

Okay, I admit that flamingos may get hip fractures. But heck...if zebras don't get ulcers, as a well-known book says, then maybe flamingos don't get hip fractures! And if they don't, here's a big reason.

Osteoporosis is one of the biggest issues plaguing the mature and elderly population today. One of the biggest risks that occurs alongside osteoporosis is a fall that may result in a dangerous, possibly life-threatening fracture. Fractures of the femur are among the most dangerous.

The femur, or thigh bone, is one of the strongest and largest bones in the body. It usually takes a tremendous force to fracture a femur through the center. But there is a weak point, and it is located toward the top, at the neck of the femur, at its narrowest point. This is just below where the femur inserts into the pelvis and creates a ball-and-socket joint. It is this area that is prone to fractures, particularly in the elderly and/or those with osteoporosis.

A Japanese researcher by the name of Sakamoto has studied a treatment – originally called “unipedal standing” – to help counteract both falls and the risk of femoral neck fractures. The name has been switched to “dynamic flamingo therapy,” perhaps because it sticks in the mind more easily. But talk about your simple, noninvasive, inexpensive and potentially very helpful treatments for osteoporosis as well as fall and hip fracture prevention!

It goes like this: Stand on one foot for one minute. Then stand on the other foot for one minute. Hold on to something steady if your balance isn’t all that great. Keep your eyes open the entire time. Repeat this three times a day. You’re done. Seriously. That’s it.

How does something as simple as this work? First off, recall that weight-bearing exercise is often recommended as a means to ward off osteoporosis. Mild to moderate weight and stress on a bone will induce that bone to become stronger and denser. Doubling the weight that one femur is supporting certainly qualifies. (In one study, the force exerted by one minute of standing on one foot was determined to be the equivalent of walking for 53 minutes!) Second, standing on one foot forces the brain to concentrate on maintaining balance…even if you’re holding on to something to keep from falling. If you regularly force the brain to concentrate on balance, you will, in time, become more adept at maintaining balance. This may help prevent the falls that cause hip fractures.

Sakamoto began studying dynamic flamingo therapy in the early 1990s. Starting in 1993, he recruited 86 women (with an average age of 68) to do this very exercise three times a day. He evaluated their bone density regularly over the span of the next 10 years. During this time, anywhere from 32% to 63% of the women had increased bone density in the femoral neck, and at the end of the study, fully one-third of the women had higher femoral neck bone density than when they started. Not necessarily the results you’d expect in elderly Japanese women…you’d expect bone density to decrease across the board. More significantly, none of the women had hip fractures. A study on Swiss women around the same time showed that the average risk for hip fractures in women was 455 per 100,000 person-years. If we transfer this statistic to the Japanese women (knowing that yes, Swiss women and Japanese women are different), we would expect to see roughly four hip fractures.

Especially for those people who are not able to exercise regularly, this is potentially an incredibly helpful therapy. You can file dynamic flamingo therapy under “certainly won’t hurt, and quite possibly may help.” But consistency is the key here…act like a flamingo only every once in a while, and the therapy won’t work. Only six minutes a day in one exceedingly simple exercise can end up preventing a possibly life-threatening hip fracture.

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