Use caution to avoid common winter injuries

Plan walking route and don't overexert

February 16, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun staff

The snow, subfreezing temperatures, sleet and ice that swept through Maryland this week can lead to a host of weather-related injuries and health problems, doctors warn.

Dr. Bill Howard, the director of sports medicine at Union Memorial Hospital, said injuries vary with the type of weather. But this time around, people are most likely to be injured from falls on ice.

Besides bumps and bruises, he said, broken wrists and concussions are common. Elderly people, he added, sometimes suffer broken hips - which can begin a downward spiral in their overall health.

Howard suggests planning a route carefully and avoiding areas that look particularly icy. "Walk in snow rather than what appears to be wet sidewalk," he said, "cause it ain't wet."

He also advised using hand railings when possible and avoiding inclines, even safety ramps. "Probably the most dangerous areas are those handicapped cutaways in sidewalks," he said. "It's better to step up on a curb."

Other suggestions include walking flat-footed, taking short steps and avoiding smooth-soled shoes. "High heels are lethal in these conditions," he said.

In snowy conditions, he said, injuries tend to result from shoveling, the rare strenuous activity in many people's lives.

"There are people who would not go out and run a mile," he said, "but they would do as much or more activity when shoveling snow."

The result can be anything from a strained back - typically just the aching of overworked muscles - to a heart attack.

To avoid back strain, Howard said, lift with the legs, bending at the knees and not at the waist. People who are out of shape and at risk for a heart attack should abstain altogether, if possible. "Hire a neighborhood kid to come shovel your snow," Howard said.

Frostbite is also a concern during winter storms, doctors warn. "It's not just the temperature that's important, but how windy it is," said Dr. Kenneth Means of the Curtis National Hand Center at Union Memorial Hospital. "The more windy it is, the less time it takes for frostbite to kick in."

The first symptom may be redness and a little swelling, he says. Blisters come next. If the area turns blue and dark, "that's when you're starting to get tissue death."

"Fingers, toes, ears and nose" is the catch phrase doctors use to describe the most common sites for frostbite, he said. But any exposed flesh is vulnerable.

"You can have a pretty good chance of recovery with frostbite," he said, "if you catch it and treat it." Use warm - not hot - water, preferably 105 to 110 degrees. And warm your whole body as well.

But seek medical help if the problem appears severe.

"If it's painful, if it's red and looks like it's swelling and might start to blister, you need to get it warmed up with that warm water and get into the emergency room."

As much of a threat as frostbite is, doctors see more snow blower injuries in the winter, Means says. When the machines stall in heavy or wet snow, the operators sometimes reach into the blade mechanism to clear it.

But there's still "energy in the spring mechanism, or it kicks back on," he said. His advice: Use a broom handle or a stick.

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