Falls are common in older people and are the direct cause of many osteoporotic fractures. There are limited treatments available to help frail older people who are at risk of falls. A study funded by the National Osteoporosis Society and the British Geriatrics Society on the potential benefits of whole body vibration for frail older people has now been published in Age and Ageing.
The collaborative work between the University of Loughborough and Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust showed that older people attending a falls prevention programme are able to tolerate whole body vibration.
Patients were recruited at The Nottingham University Hospitals Rehabilitation Unit and all of them took part in the NICE recommended falls prevention programme, which includes exercise. They were split at random into three groups. One group used a vibration platform that moved vertically up and down; one used a vibration platform with a “see-saw” action and one group stood upon a stationary platform whilst a buzzing noise was played so that they thought they were receiving vibration (sham vibration). The vibration training involved visiting the unit three times per week over 12 weeks, and standing on the plate during several short bouts of vibration, for a maximum of 6 minutes in total.
Measurements of balance and strength improved in all of these groups after the falls prevention programme. The vertical vibration produced greater improvements in leg muscle power, which is important in activities such as climbing stairs. Both active vibration groups showed increases in bone formation compared to the sham vibration group, indicating that vibration could improve bone strength. The other measurements of balance and falls risk were not affected by the vibration.
Professor Tahir Masud (Principle Investigator in Nottingham) added, “we were particularly interested in whether the frailer older people who are at a higher risk of falling and fracturing could tolerate this type of intervention, and the results suggest that there could be potential in exploring the idea further in this population. We now need further larger studies to see if falls (and fractures) can be prevented by this technique”.
Dr Katherine Brooke-Wavell (Loughborough University), academic PhD supervisor to student Heather Corrie who performed the intervention, stated, “There has been some evidence around for a while that vibration may improve balance and bone health in different groups, although the findings have thus far been inconsistent and often contradictory. This research demonstrates that vibration can produce some modest benefits beyond those from a typical falls prevention programme. A particular strength of this study was that we had an innovative control group consisting of sham vibration, so that we could be sure that any benefits were due to the vibration alone.”