Don't Get Hurt This Winter: Tips for Preventing Injury and Pain

Smart strategies and timely tips for what you can do to prevent being injured in the cold weather.

Slippery roads. Sidewalks piled with drifts of snow that need to be shoveled. Driving to work when it’s dark and sleeting.

Winter can be beautiful to behold (cue a pristine white wonderland featuring snow-capped fir trees and a brilliant sun in a blue sky) but it can also be treacherous if you’re not prepared. While being prepared doesn’t mean stocking a month’s worth of food in the larder (whatever that is!), it does mean using the right kind of snow shovel, stocking your car with a variety of must-haves, and wearing footwear that can help prevent slips, slides, and falls. Here are the situations that can get you in trouble, and tips on how to not get hurt this winter!

Snow Shoveling Hazards

Shoveling snow is one of the chief causes of back injury during the winter months, with the potential to cause painful muscle sprains or strains or even more grave injuries like a herniated disc. Shoveling snow also can be dangerous for those who are sedentary because it may increase the risk of a heart attack.

“What typically happens is that someone who is sedentary decides to play Hercules for 30 minutes and shovel,” says Brahim Ardolic, MD, chairman of emergency medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in Staten Island, New York. “If your exercise tolerance isn’t great and if you can’t walk up two flights of stairs without becoming short of breath, you are at risk. In every snowstorm, at least one person dies of a heart attack.”

Pace yourself, spread sand or salt over slick areas to create foot traction, and if you experience pain of any kind, stop shoveling and ask for assistance. If you are a sedentary person, hire someone to take care of snow removal for you, Dr. Ardolic recommends.

Be sure to warm up your muscles before heading out into the cold weather. A little light stretching and gentle twisting can go a long way toward reducing muscles stiffness and lessen the chance of a strain.

When shoveling snow, always bend at the hip and do the lifting with your leg muscles rather than your back muscles. This is because leg muscles are stronger, says Santhosh Thomas, DO, an interventional spine physician and associate director of the Richard E. Jacobs Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Also, push the snow rather than lift it, he says adding, “it’s better to carry the snow than to toss it.” Dr. Ardolic also recommends using a snow shovel that has a curved handle because it’s better from an ergonomic standpoint. "When a shovel has a curved handle or adjustable handle length, much of the stress is taken off your back as you shovel," he explains. Using a lightweight plastic spade in place of a heavy shovel is another solution as it's lighter and lessens the total amount of weight you’re required to lift.

Finally, consider investing in a snow blower. It takes much of the stress of snow removal off your back as you can use your leg muscles rather than your back muscles to propel the blower forward. Always keep your back upright and your knees slightly bent.

Handling the Road in Dark and Icy Conditions

According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, more than 70% of the nation’s roads are situated in snowy regions. And all that snow and ice reduce pavement friction as well as vehicle maneuverability. Nearly one quarter of weather-related vehicle crashes happen on snowy, slushy or icy pavement and 15% occur during snowfall or sleet.

Nationwide, more than 1,300 individuals are killed and more than 116,800 people are hurt annually in vehicle crashes on snowy, icy, or slushy pavement.

To reduce your risk of getting into trouble on the road in snowy weather, make sure your tires are inflated properly, avoid hills, and stay on the main roads, Dr. Thomas says. “And when you drive in snow, your acceleration and deceleration should be slower,” he says. And be sure to double the distance between you and other cars on the road since braking is more difficult in snowy weather. Avoid secondary and tertiary roads since main roads tend to be cleared first, he adds.

Avoid driving at night if possible, and drive with someone else. If you must drive solo, be sure to tell someone what time you expect to arrive at your destination and the route you will be taking. “Make sure your cell phone is charged and that you have extra batteries,” Dr. Thomas says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ecommends assembling a winter emergency kit for your car that includes the following items: a portable cellphone charger, extra batteries, blankets, booster cables, flares, tire pump, a bag of sand or cat litter for traction, flashlight, extra batteries, a battery-powered radio, food, water, and a first aid kit.

Also, keep your gas tank full to avoid getting ice in the tank or the fuel lines. If you get stranded and you leave your car running for warmth, the CDC recommends only running the heater and the engine for just 10 minutes out of every hour. The agency also advises keeping a downwind window open and making absolutely certain that your tailpipe is not blocked. Otherwise, you risk carbon monoxide poisoning. Familiarize yourself with the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning: headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, and confusion.

Beware of Black Ice

There are some 25,000 slip and fall injuries each day in the United States, and 65% of all work days lost are from injuries due to slips and falls, according to a report by Utah Valley University. One out of every five falls causes a serious injury such as a head injury or broken bone, the CDC reports. And each year more than 800,000 individuals are hospitalized due to a fall.

Slips occur when there is not enough friction or traction between the walker’s footwear and the walking surface, which commonly occurs during snowy, icy weather, according to research from Utah Valley University. A common cause of slips and falls are weather-related hazards such as rain, sleet, snow, ice, and frost.

Slips and falls resulting in sprains, strains, and breaks are especially common in the winter, Dr. Ardolic says. “It happens most commonly to people who are not prepared when they go outside,” he explains. “It’s especially common to get an injury in the morning. A person goes out and isn’t paying attention to the black ice that formed the night before.” Broken wrists and broken ankles are the most common orthopedic injury, he says.

To keep safe, wear slip-resistant shoes or boots—you want to make sure you have good traction—and be sure to treat walking surfaces with sand or salt. Take small steps and put the phone down. It may seem obvious but it’s important to watch where you are walking!

If you start to feel yourself falling, don’t fight the fall. Try rolling somewhat naturally, landing on your side or buttocks, and permit your head to turn in the direction of the roll.

And, if you land on the ground and suspect a fracture or sprain, visit the emergency room or a foot and ankle surgeon as quickly as possible for a prompt diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Acute pain from falling onto ice can be significant. Radiating leg pain or numbness below the waist should never be dismissed.

For temporary relief of symptoms, and when medical care is not close at hand, try the RICE principle: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Minor pain and muscles soreness can be treated by a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) such as ibuprofen.

Finally, if your feet get cold and damp during the winter and stay that way for a long time, treat yourself by soaking them in warm, but not hot, water. This warm-water soak helps your feet to slowly regain their normal temperature.

Winter can be a beautiful season to enjoy—provided you take the right precautions to keep yourself safe!

 

Updated on: 01/25/17
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