It’s hard to believe winter is right around the corner!  Now is a good time to take steps to make sure you protect your body from seasonal injuries.  Our clinics see a spike in injuries such as low back strains, compression fractures and herniated discs from shoveling over the winter months.  We also see an increase in fractures and other injuries due to slipping and falling on ice and snow.  The good news is, many of these may be avoided by taking precautions and properly preparing for winter activity.

One of the most important precautions is to make sure you warm-up before performing strenuous physical activity, especially in the cold.  For example, five to ten minutes of warm-up activities, which can include walking briskly, running in place, or stretching will help to increase the blood flow to your muscles and prepare them for shoveling, operating a snow blower, or other outdoor activities.  These preparations are important because warm muscles are able to adapt to unexpected movements much more quickly than cold muscles.

Another precaution you can take to reduce your risk of winter injury is to make sure you are using proper footwear outdoors.  It is essential that your shoes or boots have adequate tread to prevent dangerous slips and falls on icy surfaces this time of year.  If necessary in extreme conditions, you may even attach cleats to your footwear to provide additional traction and stability.  If you cannot clearly see the pavement, then it is wise to slow down in these conditions because there may be ice present which could cause you to lose your balance.  Although it may be difficult to believe, statistics show that one-third of adults age 65 and older will fall in a given year.  Not surprisingly, the frequency of these incidents rises significantly during the winter months due to slippery conditions and obstructed surfaces.

Snow shoveling can be one of the most hazardous winter activities if not performed using proper technique.  The physical activity of snow shoveling is comparable to weight-lifting, and the aerobic aspect of snow shoveling is similar to working out on a treadmill.  It is typical for snow shoveling to cause strains of inadequately conditioned muscles between the shoulders, upper back, lower back, buttocks, and upper legs.  According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “if you must lift the snow, squat with your legs apart, knees bent, and back straight.”  One must remember to maintain good posture and to consider the natural curve of your spine as you shovel snow.  Therefore, the shovel should be kept close to your body and you should lift the snow with your legs while being careful not bend at the waist.  It is also important to avoid twisting and turning movements while shoveling snow in order to prevent back injuries.  Core exercises can also help to reduce the chances of back injuries from snow shoveling because fit and conditioned core muscles are less likely to sustain injury from performing this task.  Finally, it is very important to remember not to throw the snow over your shoulder.  A single shovel load of snow can weigh more than twenty pounds.  Look for an ergonomically correct shovel and use it to push the snow rather than lift it.  Don’t forget to pace yourself and to take frequent breaks while shoveling as well.

In closing, safety advice I recommend for this winter includes:  being prepared for activity and weather conditions, using proper body mechanics and pacing.

Physical Therapist at Freedom Physical Therapy Services
Molly Rittberg received her master’s degree in Physical Therapy in 2007 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to receive her doctorate from Rosalind Franklin University (North Chicago) in 2009. She has since worked in an outpatient orthopedic practice where she worked with patients of all ages, injuries and disabilities. She has a wide variety of experiences including knee, ankle, foot and shoulder injuries, post-operative conditions, spinal rehabilitation and peripheral neuropathies.