Be on the Lookout for These Common Winter Injuries

By Ken Sturtz

The onset of winter brings with it a variety of potential hazards for Central New Yorkers as they enjoy the season.

“There’s plenty of things to do and plenty of opportunities to hurt yourself unfortunately,” said Christopher Tanski.

Tanski teaches emergency medicine at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. He also treats patients in the emergency room at Upstate University Hospital. One of his biggest worries in wintertime is illnesses related to shoveling snow.

Nationwide, shoveling snow accounts for thousands of injuries each winter and as many as 100 deaths. They run the gamut from a strained back to a heart attack.

“Every winter we’ll see patients who went out and shoveled snow for 30 minutes and then started having chest pain,” Tanski said.

While shoveling snow might seem relatively easy it can be strenuous, especially when the snow is wet and heavy. Colder temperatures and physical exertion increase the strain on a person’s heart, particularly if they’re normally not active.

The ER also sees all sorts of sprains, strains and broken bones from winter activities such as skiing, hockey and ice skating. Tanski said people are likely more prone to injury in winter because muscles don’t adapt as well in the cold as when it’s warm. If you’re going out in subzero temperatures it’s a good idea to stretch and give your body some time to acclimate to the environment before hitting the slopes or getting on the ice.

The biggest concern related to temperature, however, is hypothermia and frostbite.

“Often they’re insidious in their onset,” Tanski said. “You start to get a little bit cold and instead of going in or putting on more layers you stay out and maybe your fingertips and feet start to get numb.”

It’s easy for the situation to get out of hand before someone realizes what’s happening. If your fingertips and toes get cold your body is already redirecting blood away from less important parts to more important things like your heart and brain.

The important thing is to be attentive to the early warning signs, such as cold fingers and toes, and then act to prevent further issues, Tanski said. That could be as simple as putting on another layer of clothing or coming out of the cold.

Slips and falls are common year-round, but tick up in winter. The vast majority of slip and fall incidents result in little more than embarrassment and some scrapes and bruises.

“For kids and younger folks, falls are probably not an issue,” Tanski said. “You get up and dust yourself off.”

But as people get older, falls can become more serious, he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than one in four older adults falls each year, but fewer than half tell their doctor.

Older adults might have brittle bones, making them more prone to fractures or breaks. Tanski said someone might want to get checked out if they can’t get right up after a fall or if it’s really sore and doesn’t get better.

While slip and fall injuries are a greater concern for older adults, sledding injuries are a concern for children.

On average more than 20,000 children younger than 19 are treated for sledding injuries annually, according to the Center on Injury Research at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. Children on sleds run the risk of head, neck and spine injuries, Tanski said.

“I always want to temper that by saying look I’m not telling people to not go sledding, not by a long shot,” he said. “I like to go sledding with my kids.”

It’s a good idea to supervise young children and to avoid sledding near roads. Be aware of the environment and possible obstacles such as trees, fence posts and rocks. Consider checking the hill for hidden obstacles that are covered by snow and could be dangerous.

“You should be aware of what’s at the bottom of the hill,” Tanski said.