During this time of year, walking on icy ground, shoveling and driving are slippery situations that can land patients in front of a doctor instead of a light pile of snow.
Dr. Orrin Mann, MD, MPH, FACOEM, a medical spine physician with University of Minnesota Physicians (M Physicians), has seen and treated numerous patients for injuries they have sustained while being outside in the winter. Like many Minnesotans, Dr. Mann enjoys many activities winter has to offer, and he shares a few tips for how to enjoy them while staying safe.
Slips and falls
Some of the most common injuries Dr. Mann has seen patients for during the winter are related to walking on slippery ground. “A lot of things can go wrong when you’re outside during the winter,” Dr. Mann says, “Especially in terms of slipping and falling.”
These include sprains, strains and fractures in addition to knee and back injuries. To prevent these kinds of situations, “Be cognizant of the terrain you are on. If there are icy steps, use the handrail and take it at a steady pace,” Dr. Mann advises. “Stay focused on your environment, and avoid being distracted by your phone or other devices.”
“Especially when it’s wet and heavy snow, shoveling can lead to lower back injuries or heart attacks for at-risk folks,” Dr. Mann says, noting that “it’s really important to know your limits.”
“When you’re working hard to push, lift and throw heavy snow there is greater demand placed on your heart, which increases your risk for a heart attack, especially if you have underlying coronary artery disease or other risk factors,” says Dr. Mann.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these heart attack risk factors include:
- High blood pressure
- Unhealthy cholesterol levels
- Diabetes mellitus
When it comes to protecting your back and your heart while shoveling snow, Dr. Mann advises taking it easy or asking for help with snow removal if you think it may be too much for you.
Additional winter conditions
“We also treat a lot of patients with neck and back injuries following car accidents,” Dr. Mann says. “Safe driving habits, especially during the winter, can help prevent these crashes and resulting injuries.”
When driving during the winter, Dr. Mann recommends keeping a long, safe following distance between other vehicles. “Please do not tailgate. Rear-end collisions are extremely common. Watch your rear view mirror, and if someone is tailgating you, it’s usually best to move over and let the other driver pass.”
Frostbite and hypothermia are also common conditions doctors see during the winter months. To keep yourself safe, Dr. Mann advises bundling up appropriately for the temperatures. “Wear a hat, mittens and keep your fingers, toes, ears and nose covered,” he says.
When and where to seek care
Sometimes, it can be difficult to determine when and where is best to get care after an injury, and Dr. Mann has some tips to help make that decision.
“Most importantly, if you can’t stand up or move, if your legs can’t bear any weight, if you are having bowel or bladder accidents, or if you have chest pain or difficulty breathing, it’s best to call an ambulance and go to the hospital immediately,” Dr. Mann says.
“Likewise, if any limbs appear deformed or you lose any feeling in your body, get to the emergency department so they can evaluate and treat for potential fractures or other serious conditions,” he says. “The same applies for open wounds with heavy bleeding, but these can sometimes be treated at an urgent care, as well.”
If you are having back or neck pain, Dr. Mann recommends seeing a primary care physician if significant pain persists after a few days of appropriate rest, heat and use of over-the-counter pain relievers. “When in doubt, calling urgent care or your doctor’s office to assess potential next steps is a good option,” he adds. Primary care physicians may then recommend seeing a spine specialist like Dr. Mann to help treat specific injuries or conditions.
All things considered, Dr. Mann says, “Some of the best things you can do to keep yourself safe during the winter are to take it slow and easy. Remember to bundle up, avoid distractions while walking on slippery ground or driving, and pay attention to your surroundings. Respect your limits and listen to what your body is telling you.”