How to survive the winter without getting injured

Feb 20, 2016

No matter if the winter is mild or strong, dry and icy, or wet and snowy, cold weather often tends to bring injuries with it.   

Although cold-weather-related injuries may seem inevitable, there are tips and tricks to staying out of the hospital this winter. Dr. Christopher McStay, the chief of operations in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and the former chief of service for the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Department in New York City, speaks with us this week on “Take Care” on how to do this.

According to McStay, the number one cause of day-to-day winter injuries in an urban environment is slipping and falling, which often results in broken wrists and ankles.

“People find themselves falling so quickly and unexpectedly, that it’s really easy to injure them self,” McStay said.

This injury has even been termed FOOSH, which stands for “falling on an outstretched hand,” because it’s so common. A way McStay says you can avoid a FOOSH is by landing on your elbows instead, which are a bit tougher and in most cases will only suffer bruising. McStay acknowledges this may be difficult to initiate mid-fall, but advises to keep it in mind and do it when possible.

But if your brain ends up telling your hands to break your fall, McStay gives some tell-tale signs to recognize whether you’ve just merely bruised your wrist, or if it’s something more serious that requires medical attention.

“If you fall, you have a substantial mechanism of injury, your wrist is really swollen and it hurts when you move it back and forth, if you heard a crunch, if you feel crunching in a place that normally doesn’t crunch, then you probably have to show up [to the ER] and get an X-ray,” McStay said.

However, injured wrists and ankles aren’t the only thing slipping and falling can cause. When we start to fall our automatic reaction is to stop ourselves, and how do we do this? Usually by flailing our arms for balance or in hopes an object will magically appear for us to catch ourselves on. But even if this does stop us from falling, it puts unwanted stress on the back and other joints that can cause strains in muscles and tendons.

“It’s very common to sprain and strain other areas of your body in that process,” McStay said.

Aside from slipping and falling, the dreaded snow shoveling is also a culprit for winter injuries. Like flailing your arms, shoveling can also put a lot of stress on the body. McStay says medical professionals even consider shoveling to be somewhat of a stress test for the heart because of the amount of physical activity it requires. And yes, shoveling can even cause a heart attack.

Although snow blowing doesn’t affect the body in the same way as shoveling, accidents can still be just as serious and in some cases more so.

McStay says there have been instances where people have stuck their hand in a snow blower that was still running, got injured by debris the snow blower ejected, and been injured by the snow blower because the operator wasn’t wearing the proper gear. In addition to boots and warm clothes, McStay says gloves are one of the most important things to wear when snow blowing or doing anything that involves touching metal surfaces in the cold.

“That metal really tends to suck out the heat from the hand, and it’s actually pretty easy to get cold-related injuries if you’re bare handing a snow blower or another metal object,” McStay said.

Along with falling, shoveling, and snow blowing, McStay also advises to be aware of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter months. He says the best way to avoid hypothermia when doing outdoor activities, such as hunting, ice fishing, or skiing, is to not wear cotton. Once cotton gets wet it’s very hard for it to dry and can make you feel colder. McStay also said if you’re using a generator to heat your house, make sure you have a carbon monoxide detector, as this can let off the poisonous gas.

Two thousand people in the U.S. die every year due to weather-related injuries, and 63 percent of those injuries are during winter months, according to McStay. So make sure you bundle up this winter, keep his tips in mind, and take care.