DEAR DOCTOR K: I have osteoporosis. I’ve heard about “hip protectors” that reduce the risk of hip fracture if you fall. Are they worthwhile?
DEAR READER: Osteoporosis contributes to about 300,000 hip fractures in the United States each year. The hip is not the most common site of an osteoporosis-related fracture (it follows behind the spine and wrist). But a hip fracture can have particularly devastating consequences.
Hip fractures can impair your ability to walk or perform everyday activities, such as dressing yourself or rising from a chair. At best, the breaks require temporary confinement to bed or a wheelchair. But often the injury has lasting effects. More than half of people who break a hip never fully regain their former level of independence.
A hip protector or “hip pad” is a stiff plastic shield underlaid with foam padding that must be strapped onto the hip. There are many different types of hip protectors, which presents a problem in answering your question as to whether they are worthwhile.
Research doesn’t allow a conclusion about hip protectors in general. Many studies are funded by the company that makes the hip protector being studied – which raises a question about whether positive results have been reported accurately.
Some studies suggest that hip protectors may reduce injuries in people at high risk of a fracture who live in nursing homes. But reviews of the best research available have failed to prove that hip protectors reduce hip fractures in older adults who live independently.
The main challenge is getting people to wear the hip protectors consistently and properly. That’s because the pads can be uncomfortable and awkward. Also, you can still fall in circumstances in which you would not be wearing the pads – in the bath or shower, for example. But if worn consistently by people at risk of hip fracture, these pads could theoretically be beneficial.