WASHINGTON D.C. — Winter is on our doorstep and while the health focus continues to be on staying safe from COVID-19, we cannot forget that this is also the time of year when the cold air temperature can cause the muscles and ligaments that support the back and spine, along with other parts of your body like shoulders and knees, to contract and tighten.
According to one study by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, back strains are among the most common reasons for hospitalization during the winter months and holiday season. And we would surely all wish to avoid an unplanned trip to the doctor or hospital, especially during these times.
People need to be aware that the risk for injury or re-injury tends to go up in the winter. So it’s important for everyone, but especially those with a history of back and spine issues, to take precautions. As such, here is a short list of my easy-to-observe tips to help you keep your back healthy during the winter and avoid injury.
Stretch regularly. Warming up isn’t just for athletes! Having a regular stretching routine is important if you want to reduce your risk of injury, and even speed up the healing of an old one. Simple back stretches like the child’s pose or cat-cow can add strength and flexibility to your spine.
Wear proper footwear. Like prepping the tires on your car, you should pay attention to the shoes you wear if you plan to traipse around on snowy or icy terrain this winter. In addition to making sure that your shoes are a proper fit (be wary of buying online and try them on in-store first, if possible) and have enough insulation to keep your toes warm, invest in a pair of shoes or boots that have non-stick rubber soles and treads on the bottoms. These should help you keep from slipping and falling, thus possibly sustaining a back injury. And when you head indoors, kick off those wet, snowy shoes and switch to dry, comfy socks or slippers so you don’t risk slipping on the floors.
Be aware of your surroundings. If you plan to spend time outside, be mindful of the surfaces around you. Pay attention to weather reports that call for hazardous conditions. An icy road or sidewalk might not be immediately noticeable, so it’s best to take small steps, not walk too fast, and avoid carrying anything bulky or heavy like grocery bags. Make use of large, stationary objects around you, like handrails or a tree or vehicle, to steady yourself if you feel at risk of a fall. Understand that snowfall can obscure things that could trip you, like rocks or steps, so keep a close eye on what’s directly in front of you.
Stay active. Winter brings with it the aftereffects of the holiday season that, for some people, is characterized by lots of decadent eating combined with a whole lot of sitting around. For others, seasonal depression rears its ugly head, making even basic, everyday activities more difficult. While turkey, pies, and chocolate are tasty holiday staples, overconsumption can lead to unwanted weight gain, which in turn has potential to add pressure to a sensitive back. Be sure to build in time between meals to get some light exercise and keep your body limber.
But also, don’t overextend yourself! Many of us find ourselves engaging in physically taxing, once-a-year work outdoors in the winter, whether it’s hanging Christmas lights and decorations, or shoveling snow. These odd jobs can prove perilous because they can require our bodies to move in ways they may not be used to. Snow shoveling, in particular, can put enormous strain on your back with all the bending and lifting that’s required. It’s important to use proper technique and equipment whenever possible, and give yourself ample time to take breaks and rest when engaging in such strenuous activity.
Always wear a seatbelt. Hopefully this is one of the more obvious tips, but it bears mentioning! Nearly a quarter of weather-related auto accidents occur during winter, and almost 76,000 people are injured in accidents that happen on snowy or slushy roadways. Back pain or injury is commonly reported even after low-speed fender-benders, mainly due to the fact that most times our bodies do not have a chance to brace for the sudden impact. Having your seatbelt properly fastened can minimize that unexpected movement…in addition to, you know, saving your life.
By being deliberate and always keeping our bodily health top of mind, we should all be able to enjoy the winter safely. We should all be aware of our body’s limitations, but by observing this handful of tips, you should be able to navigate this fun winter season pain and injury-free.
Dr. Rita Roy serves as the Chief Executive Officer of the National Spine Health Foundation (www.spinehealth.org).
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