Point-Counterpoint: Do AFOs Have A Role In Fall Prevention?
I am aware that the fall prevention brace company has sponsored research showing changes in postural control with its devices. Only when this research is peer reviewed and published in a respected medical journal can we really begin to evaluate the findings. Furthermore, studies on postural control do not in any way prove that an intervention will prevent falls in elderly people. Improving postural control is not a valid medical indication for prescribing AFO devices, according to Medicare guidelines.
To conform to Medicare guidelines, the fall prevention brace advertisements advocate identifying common musculoskeletal conditions normally treated with AFOs, which can justify the prescription of a fall prevention brace. Not only is this practice deceptive and potentially illegal, there is no validity to the notion that treating musculoskeletal conditions will prevent catastrophic falls.
Why The Argument About Treating Risk Factors Doesn’t Hold Up To Scrutiny
Let’s look at this argument that by treating known musculoskeletal risk factors, AFO devices will reduce the risk of falling in elderly patients. The fallacy of this argument is the fact that there is no evidence that AFO devices actually “treat” these risk factors in a way that the devices will actually prevent falls. It is well known in epidemiologic research that, while we can identify risk factors, treating the risk factors does not always ensure the prevention of the event or disease. Implementing AFO devices for osteoarthritis, muscle weakness or gait abnormality may improve the symptoms of these conditions but does not automatically translate into a lower rate of falling.
For example, while osteoarthritis is a known risk factor for falling, one must ask: How does an AFO device change or modify osteoarthritis so it actually prevents falls? If AFO devices improved arthritis and prevented fall risk, studies would be available to prove this cause/effect relationship. Thus far, there are no such studies showing that treating arthritis with AFO devices will prevent falls.1 Similarly, there are no studies showing that when one uses AFO devices to treat muscle weakness, limited joint motion or gait abnormality, a significant reduction in the risk of falls will occur.8
There is better evidence that foot orthoses, not ankle-foot orthoses, will improve balance and reduce fall risk in elderly patients.9 One must ask: Why are podiatric physicians not implementing bilateral foot orthotic therapy to prevent falls in elderly patients rather than AFO devices? The answer may be the fact that Medicare does not cover custom foot orthoses but reimburses handsomely for custom AFO devices. One has to question the role that financial incentive is playing in this new, unproven intervention for fall prevention.
Finally, one has to step back and realize that this whole controversy about prescribing bilateral solid shell AFO devices on elderly patients obscures the many positive aspects of fall prevention in podiatric practice. Last year, I wrote an article in Podiatry Today describing the positive role that podiatric physicians can play in identifying fall risk and implementing certain valid, proven interventions.10 One cannot let a commercial interest blur the significant and positive effects of valid fall prevention treatments implemented by the podiatric profession.
Dr. Richie is an Adjunct Associate Professor within the Department of Applied Biomechanics at the California School of Podiatric Medicine at Samuel Merritt University in Oakland, Calif. He is a Fellow and Past President of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine. Dr. Richie is a Fellow of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons. He is in private practice in Seal Beach, Calif. Dr. Richie writes a monthly blog for Podiatry Today. One can access his blog at www.podiatrytoday.com/blogs/301 .