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Winter activities, such as shoveling snow, carry significant risks for back pain, falls, and orthopaedic injuries.
Courtesy of Thinkstock


Published 12/1/2016
Alan S. Hilibrand, MD

Preventing Common Winter Injuries

Tips for helping patients avoid seasonal orthopaedic injuries
The winter and holiday seasons are times for celebration, decorations, travel, and in many parts of the country, a white blanket of beautiful snow. Unfortunately, this time of year also heralds shoveling, icy sidewalks, falls, back pain, and other orthopaedic injuries.

You can help patients prevent common injuries that occur during the winter and holiday seasons by sharing the following tips and resources on your practice website, in your office waiting room, and/or on your personal and professional social media sites.

Holiday decorating
In 2015, nearly 69,000 visits to doctors' offices and emergency departments were holiday decorating-related, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Injuries ranged from falls incurred while hanging lights and other decorations, to hand and other extremity injuries from artificial trees and stands, lights, and other adornments. Moreover, approximately 566,000 Americans were injured due to a fall from a ladder in 2015.

You can help your patients avoid injuries related to holiday decorating by sharing with them the following tips:

  • Select the right ladder for the job. When working at low and medium heights, choose a step stool or a utility ladder. Extension ladders are ideal for use outdoors to reach high places, such as hanging items from the rooftop. The weight the ladder is supporting should never exceed the ladder's maximum load capacity.
  • Never use a ladder that is damaged, broken, or bent. Check the ladder for any loose screws, hinges, or rungs.
  • Clean off any mud, grease, oil, snow, or other slippery liquids that might have accumulated on the ladder.
  • Properly set up the ladder on a firm, level surface.
  • Stand on a step stool instead of furniture when you need a few more inches to hang something.
  • Ask for help.
  • Minimize clutter and keep pathways clear of decorations, gift boxes, and other items that can trip you up.

Travel and luggage
This month, many Americans will be on the move visiting family and friends. Travelers may also be waiting in airport lines and rushing to catch trains, buses, and taxis, often while carrying and moving heavy luggage and gifts. Knowing how much is too much, and how to lift heavy packages and luggage, can prevent back and other pain.

According to the CPSC, more than 84,500 Americans were treated in hospital emergency rooms, doctors' offices, clinics, and other medical settings in 2015 for injuries related to carrying luggage. To help your patients avoid luggage-related injuries, encourage them to do the following:

  • Pack light and use luggage with wheels when traveling.
  • Take care when placing luggage in an overhead compartment. First, lift it onto the top of the seat. Then, with hands situated on the left and right sides of the suitcase, lift it to place in the overhead compartment. If your luggage has wheels, make sure the wheel side is set in the compartment first.
  • Do not rush when lifting or carrying a suitcase or heavy package.
  • Always use proper lifting techniques. When lifting luggage or other heavy items, bend at your knees and lift with your leg muscles, not your back and waist. Avoid twisting or rotating your spine.

Snow, ice, and winter sports
Patients living in colder climates will soon have to contend with shoveling snow and crossing icy streets, and may participate in winter sports such as snowboarding, skiing, or ice-skating. These activities carry significant risks for falls and back pain, as well as sprains, strains, fractures, and other orthopaedic injuries.

Last year, approximately 150,442 visits to doctors' offices and emergency departments were due to snow shoveling, and another 15,500 were related to snowblower use, the CPSC states.  Nearly 150,000 medical visits were the result of skiing and snowboarding injuries. Encourage your patients to take the following precautions when participating in winter activities:

  • Speak with your physician before clearing the driveway and sidewalk of snow if you have heart or vascular conditions. Do this regardless of whether you use a shovel or snowblower.
  • Never stick your hands in the snowblower.
  • Warm up your muscles for 10 minutes with light exercise and take frequent breaks before shoveling.
  • Clear snow early and often.
  • Wear proper footwear and look in front of you when walking or shoveling. Ice can cause sudden and serious falls. If you find yourself falling, try to fall on your side or buttocks.
  • Drive cautiously. Allow plenty of time to brake as you approach stop signs and red lights, and reduce speed in hazardous conditions.
  • For winter sports, wear appropriate protective gear, including goggles, helmets, gloves, and padding.
  • Know and abide by the rules of the winter sport in which you are participating.
  • Seek shelter and medical attention immediately if you or anyone with you is experiencing hypothermia or frostbite when in the cold.

Alan S. Hilibrand, MD, chairs the AAOS Communications Cabinet.

Additional winter and holiday season safety tips and resources