Who knew that a trip to the airport, one I had done many times, would end up so badly. Here is what happened in August 2016 when I fell and broke my shoulder.
I was in a hurry to get to the gate for my flight to Tuscon. I was flying to an important meeting where I was going to have the chance to interview a former Surgeon General. The traffic from Marin to SFO was obnoxious and the TSA line very slow.
I was wearing a heavy backpack. Optimistic about getting some work done on the plane, I had filled it with medical journals and my laptop. I was also pulling my wheelie.
I was walking my usual fast pace when the ball of my left foot struck the floor first—it had been happening a lot lately—and I stumbled. As I tried to get my balance, the backpack slid up towards my head and propelled me forward and down—hard.
I took the brunt of the fall on my right shoulder, but the worst pain was in the middle of my upper arm. I couldn’t use it to help me get up off the floor.
After the fall
A kind passerby got down on the floor next to me and said, with confidence, “I am certified in first aid. Can I help?” Grateful, I directed her to take my left arm and gently pull me into a sitting position.
By now, I am the center of attention, surrounded by airport police, passengers, and a United Airlines representative who told me, in no uncertain terms, that I would not be getting on my flight to Tucson. This was after I asked him to please take me to the gate in a wheelchair. Although he kindly booked me on a later flight, just in case the injury turned out to be something minor, he had already called for an ambulance.
So that was how I ended up as a patient in the ER I used to work in. The emergency physician on duty was one of the few people I still knew at Kaiser South San Francisco.
He sewed up a small laceration in my right eyebrow and arranged for the x-ray. The radiologist, an old friend from my running days, gave me the bad news. I had a displaced fracture of the greater tuberosity of the humerus plus a non-displaced surgical neck fracture.
I was definitely not going to Tucson.
Why a fall is not just a fall
There are so many interesting and important questions raised by my fall that I want to share with you because I learned that a fall is not just a fall and a broken shoulder is not just a broken shoulder. Bear with me as I take you through some of my thinking.
First of all, there’s the question: Why did I fall? The folks at the airport and the clinicians in the ER asked all the right questions to make sure it wasn’t something that needed an urgent evaluation. Did I have chest pain, dizziness, palpitations? No. Did I trip on something—an uneven tile or an object on the floor? No.
I am very clear about why I fell. I tripped over my own left foot. Once I explained that people lost interest in why I fell and concentrated on the result of my fall—the proximal humeral fractures. But, we will come back to the why later on because it is one of the most important questions that can be asked about a fall.
Managing the pain of my broken shoulder
The next question was what did I need for pain? I opted for 1 gram of IV acetaminophen. It worked like a charm and left my head clear so I could sort out the other issues.
One of the most urgent was notifying my client that I would not be at their meeting in Tucson the next morning. I also had to figure out the best way to get home without having my husband schlepp an hour to retrieve me.
An obviously important issue to address: What’s the treatment? After all, you can’t put a shoulder in a cast.
I was given a sling and a follow-up appointment in Orthopedics for a week hence. I opted for NSAIDs for pain because I don’t like the nausea and foggy head that accompany opioids. It turns out that was all I needed.
Getting discharged from the ER was smooth and easy
The discharge from the ER was amazing. My friend, the ER doc, gave me a white and blue pocket folder filled with all the information I would need until I could see the bone doc. In it were several sheets of paper that described upper extremity fractures. It also outlined the home care and follow-up instructions and explained when to seek urgent medical advice.
I also found instructions on how to take the pain medication together with a note telling me that I could pick up my prescription at any pharmacy. It was already entered into the system-wide EHR. (Eat your hearts out, all you people getting care outside of an integrated delivery system.)
I tucked the paper copies of my X-rays in the folder and paid my $5 (no kidding) copay. And then I said my thank yous to the staff who had treated me so kindly and professionally.
I took a Lyft home, whining to the driver about how I was missing a great meeting in Tucson. Even more important, I complained, I was going to miss the upcoming family trip rafting the Middle Fork of the Salmon that I had been looking forward to for months.
Follow-up for my broken shoulder
I got plugged into Kaiser’s orthopedic department and had regular x-rays to ensure healing was going ok. Of course, I spent hours on PubMed and other sites on the internet trying to determine what was the best treatment for my particular fractures.
My fellow internists won’t be surprised to hear that the Orthopedic literature is a mess. Most of the papers I read insisted surgery was the treatment of choice, but I was being treated conservatively with a sling and physical therapy (PT).
So, I made an appointment with the shoulder specialist at my Kaiser medical center to review the literature—yes, you can do that. He described several studies. One was from the UK that I had already read. The researchers found that outcomes were the same for people treated with surgery and those treated with a sling.
This was the case even if there was displacement of the greater tuberosity like I had. Further, he pointed out, the top of my humeral head had a good shape and there was plenty of room between it and the acromion so impingement syndrome was unlikely.
I was lucky. Even before I started PT, my shoulder range of motion started to improve. With PT, I went to 80% of the way to normal shoulder function within 2-3 months. I continued doing my PT exercises at home for about a year and a half. My functional range of motion is now about 95 to 100% normal.
Many questions about my fall and fracture remain
I have only scratched the surface of issues related to falls and fractures in this post. Many questions remain:
- The humerus is a big bone. Why did mine break after a simple fall from a standing position? Had my long-standing osteopenia progressed to osteoporosis? If I have osteoporosis, what is the best treatment? And, what are its side effects?
- Why did I trip? Did I have foot drop or some other gait abnormality? Or was it just a problem with my shoes, my clumsiness, or my inattention? Equally important, what can I do to prevent falling in the future—a huge source of morbidity for women (and men) “of a certain age.”
- How can I get back full and normal function of my right arm? Believe it or not, I was so good at holding it still by my side that I had to consciously remember to use it once it was freed from the sling.
- How do I overcome my newly acquired fear of falling and mental images of falling when I go up and down stairs or walk with my big old black lab? Is this a form of PTSD? What’s the best way to renormalize my disturbed sleep?
It is important to explore all of these aspects of falls and fractures because I think all too often clinicians, friends, and family members,—and even patients—think that a fall is just a fall. But in many cases, as I have learned, a fall may be so much more.
If you would like to add to this list of issues to explore, please pass them along either as a comment on this post or as an email to email@example.com.
Learning and supporting each other
I am also hoping to hear more from readers about their experiences with osteoporotic fractures. I am pleased that the comment section of this post has become an important resource for people (mostly women) who have fallen and broken their shoulders.
In addition to telling their fracture stories, women have been offering answers to the following questions:
- Did anyone ask if you had low bone density (osteopenia or osteoporosis)? Were you offered screening for the condition?
- Were you evaluated for underlying or contributing reasons for the fall (e.g., balance problems, vision problems, safety issues in the home)?
- Did you experience significant emotional sequelae (e.g., fear of falling, depression, insomnia) after the fall/fracture? Did any of your health professionals ask about or offer help with these symptoms?
Please join in by leaving your responses in the comment section below. Or, send me an email via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in August 2019, it was updated by the author for republication today.