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Just Clumsy, or Something Serious?

Experts explain when being clumsy is a sign of medical trouble, or just plain klutziness.

Steps to Cut the Risk of Falls

Perhaps the ultimate in clumsiness is actually losing your balance and falling down. If you or an aging parent frequently trips or falls, take it seriously. Falls can cause permanent disability, and many are preventable. According to the CDC, a few simple steps can reduce the risk of falls:

1. Begin a regular exercise program. Exercise increases strength and balance. Your doctor can help you design an effective program for your level of fitness.

2. Make your home safer by taking actions like these:

  • Take all clutter off stairs.
  • Turn lights on when you get up to use the bathroom at night.
  • Tape down the edges of rugs with double-sided tape.
  • Have handrails placed on all staircases, and put grab bars in shower stalls.

3. Ask your doctor to review your medicines. "Many medicines have dizziness as a side effect, and this can certainly contribute to falls or clumsiness," says Erica Duncan, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Decatur, Ga. If you suspect side effects from your medications, discuss this with your doctor to confirm and see what alternatives are available.

4. Have your vision checked. You may have a treatable vision problem like cataracts or glaucoma -- or just need a new prescription.

Clumsiness: When It's Serious

When does clumsiness merit a trip to the doctor? The answer is -- whenever you think there might be a problem. We asked Harrison about three real-life cases of clumsiness; all were patients of this writer over the last three years. Their names have been changed. Do you see yourself in any of these common scenarios?

A Keyed-Up Programmer

Dave, a 25-year-old computer programmer, felt the heat at work. He said deadlines made him klutzy, and he felt like he was knocking something over every time he turned around. This also happened the last time he had a big project due.

Diagnosis: routine life stress.

"It's important to remember that simple things like lack of sleep, skipping meals, or stressful situations might affect our dexterity," says Harrison. Taking care of ourselves when times get tough is the best medicine for this brand of the butterfingers.

High Sugar, Clumsy Feet

Arvind, 52, has lived with diabetes for almost 15 years. Sometimes he controlled his blood glucose levels tightly; other times, he let it slip. But Arvind noticed more and more that he was tripping on rugs and the edges of stairs. He also felt that it was harder to keep his balance at night.

Diagnosis: nerve damage caused by diabetes.

"Peripheral neuropathy is a disease of nerves associated with sensory loss in the hands and feet, and can affect coordination," according to Harrison. Tight control of blood sugar is essential for diabetes patients to avoid this complication, which can lead to serious foot ulcers.

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