Overuse of Bed Rails Leads to Unnecessary Injuries and Death September 26, 2012.

Many people believe bed rails are a responsible and necessary safety measure in hospitals and nursing homes. They think bed rails on hospital beds serve the same safety function as a seat belt does in a car: they keep sick, drugged, confused, or restless people safe by keeping them in bed.

But the reality is bed rails are a specific safety measure that should be used only in specific situations. Studies have found health care facilities largely overuse bed rails, leading to many unnecessary injuries and deaths each year.

While it is true that bed rails decrease the risk of falling out of bed, they actually increase the risk of injury because they change the way people fall out of bed. When there are no bed rails, patients fall from a lower level and often simply land on their knees or legs; when bed rails are being used, patients fall farther and more often land on their head.

Entrapment, however, is a much bigger safety concern than falling ou of bed. Too often patients get stuck within the rail or between the bed rail and the mattress.

"The population most vulnerable to entrapment are elderly patients and residents, especially those who are frail, confused, restless, or who have uncontrolled body movement," noted FDA bed rail guidelines. Weak or disabled patients are less likely to be able to free themselves from a bed rail if they do get trapped, often leading to serious injury or even death.

Between 1985 and 2009, FDA received reports of 803 incidents of patients caught, trapped, entangled, or strangled in hospital beds. The reports included 480 deaths, 138 nonfatal injuries, and 185 cases where staff intervened to prevent an injury.

Experts believe these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Most incidents involving bedrails go unreported.

None of this should be news for nursing homes and rehab facilities. The FDA issued a warning as far back as 1995 about the dangers of bed rail use. Around that time, a published study found that 65% of bed rail entrapments led to death.

In 2006, the FDA released guidelines intended to reduce life-threatening entrapments associated with hospital bed systems. Yet every year, patients are still unnecessarily injured or killed by bed rails.

How do you protect your loved ones from the dangers of bed rails? Question their use. Make sure it makes sense to use bed rails in your particular situation. Ask doctors and nurses about alternative safety measures.

Geriatrician and bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles offered this advice to the New York Times when asked how to distinguish a quality rehab facility or nursing home from an unsafe one: "Count off 10 beds. See how many have rails in use. If more than one or two in 10 beds have rails up, walk out of the facility."

If you or someone you love has been injured by the improper use of bed rails, consider contacting an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can advise you of your rights.