January 24, 2024
CHICAGO: Jack Frost may bring a vast winter wonderland to many parts of the country during the winter months, but the season also fosters dangerous conditions that can make doing everyday tasks—like grocery shopping and walking the dog—challenging.
“It’s slip and fall season,” said Letitia Bradford, MD, FAAOS, FACS, an orthopaedic surgeon who practices in rural communities in New Mexico and California. “We see a lot of ankle and wrist fractures during this time as people are slipping on water when it’s raining and ice spots or snow in colder areas.”
Dr. Bradford and other Fellows of the American College of Surgeons (ACS) offer their top tips for keeping safe this winter and preventing injury.
Slips and falls occur more frequently in the winter, but in many instances, these can be prevented by being extra mindful of the conditions around you.
“The thing that I tell people the most is to really take their time when doing something. Most of the time, injuries like slips and falls happen when you’re in a hurry,” said Dr. Bradford, who also serves as a community clinical associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine and executive director of the education nonprofit Nth Dimensions.
Be on the lookout for hazardous areas such as wet spots, black ice spots, or curbs when walking outside, especially when carrying items like groceries that may obstruct your view, and don’t expect to complete tasks in record time.
“You can’t always watch out for ice spots because they do sneak up on you sometimes, but try to be weary of them when walking,” Dr. Bradford cautioned. “Taking your time really is the key to a lot of injury prevention.”
Proper footwear can also make a big difference, especially in areas with heavy snowfall. Wear shoes or boots with proper grips—that means forgoing the flip-flops to check the mail and choosing shoes with good traction, even when completing short tasks outside. If your everyday shoes aren’t well-equipped for snow or ice, traction devices that can be added to them, such as ice cleats or ice grips, can add an extra layer of protection.
“And if you are older and need to use a cane or walker, I cannot stress to you enough the importance of using that cane or walker in these times because it gives you an extra point of fixation and support on the ground,” Dr. Bradford advised.
Many winter injuries can also happen from overusing neglected muscle groups while completing wintery tasks, such as shoveling snow or pushing a car if it experiences mechanical issues in the cold weather.
“A lot of people can aggravate their backs and muscles from overusing muscles that they don’t normally use,” said Todd J. Albert, MD, FACS, surgeon-in-chief emeritus at Hospital for Special Surgery and a professor of orthopaedic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College. “We see strain injuries from that kind of overuse.”
One of the best ways to prevent these types of injuries or strains is to build a strong core by doing a mixture of cardiovascular and strength training exercises, including yoga or Pilates, at least three times per week. A strong core can almost act as a brace to protect from more severe injuries.
“I think doing all of those things together will both increase your bone density and balance to protect against injuries that occur more often in the winter,” Dr. Albert added.
Some injuries can also occur when participating in high-impact winter sports like skiing or snowboarding. A recreational skier, Dr. Albert frequently hit the slopes during the winter months but has now become what he calls a “ballroom skier,” trading black diamond runs for less risky ski trails.
“If you’re a skier and you’re 40 years old, don’t think you can ski like you did when you were 20 years old,” he said.
By the same token, anticipating which spots may be most dangerous and getting cold weather gear ready as soon as the weather forecast predicts a storm are also key to injury prevention whether you’re on the slopes or walking on your driveway.
“Any kind of rotational injury can cause skeletal injuries,” said Brad Yoo, MD, FACS, an associate professor of orthopaedics and rehabilitation at Yale School of Medicine and a member of the ACS Committee on Trauma (COT), which develops and implements programs that support injury prevention. “There are a myriad of injuries that can occur due to slips and falls, so try to be very cognizant and conscious of what kind of surface and terrain you’re on.”
If you’re unsure if an injury is a minor sprain or something more serious, don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care physician, especially if the injury does not respond to over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen, or if the injury prevents you from doing daily tasks.
“If the suspicion is there, you should seek care. You don’t want to delay your care for four or five days thinking it’s nothing,” Dr. Yoo said. “Orthopaedic injuries are easier to manage if the problem is dealt with urgently.”
Slips and falls can be “game-changing,” and sideline your normal routine for weeks and sometimes months, said Bryant W. Oliphant, MD, MBA, MSc, FACS, Chair of the Orthopaedic Surgery Specialty Committee on the ACS COT and an orthopaedic surgeon at Detroit Receiving Hospital.
“You’re doing fine, and all of a sudden, you break your hip, wrist, or ankle,” he said. “That can ruin your winter and change things, especially if you’re elderly. It can be very hard to recover from these types of injuries.”
Dr. Oliphant emphasizes that small acts of kindness can make a big impact on those around you, especially during heavy snowstorms when there’s a continuous buildup of wet snow that can compact and turn into ice.
“If there are people near you who can’t get out of their house because they’re older or have other issues, be a good neighbor and clear their snow if you can,” Dr. Oliphant said. “People aren’t necessarily aware of ice or other slick spots when they’re going for a walk, so if you’re aware and can maintain your sidewalks and roads, I think that goes a long way to helping other people out.”
For journalists: Journalists may contact firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an interview with surgeons about winter safety.
The American College of Surgeons is a scientific and educational organization of surgeons that was founded in 1913 to raise the standards of surgical practice and improve the quality of care for all surgical patients. The College is dedicated to the ethical and competent practice of surgery. Its achievements have significantly influenced the course of scientific surgery in America and have established it as an important advocate for all surgical patients. The College has approximately 90,000 members and is the largest organization of surgeons in the world. "FACS" designates that a surgeon is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.