Whether you greet the idea of winter sports and chores with enthusiasm or dread, there’s no denying that these activities – and even walking on icy surfaces – pose particular risks to an already vulnerable part of our body: our spine. That’s why preventing winter back injuries should be a priority when the weather outside is icy, snowy, cold and slippery, according to Kaliq Chang, MD, of Atlantic Spine Center.
With most cases of back pain stemming from so-called “mechanical” causes – movements or injuries such as those involved in skiing, skating, shoveling snow and falling on ice – Dr. Chang agrees with experts’ estimates that as many as 80% of people will experience a back problem at some point in their lives. But we don’t have to accept back problems as an inevitable result of staying active when temperatures dip, he says.
“Since the back is a complicated structure of bones, joints, ligaments and muscles, winter mishaps can strain muscles, sprain ligaments, rupture discs and irritate joints, all of which can cause back pain,” explains Dr. Chang, an interventional pain management specialist. “While we can’t control every mishap, we can take common sense measures to avoid a large number of back problems.”
Cold-weather causes and prevention of back problems
Whether winter back injuries are caused by skiing, skating, shoveling snow or falling on icy surfaces, prevention starts with preparation. No matter what outdoor activity you plan, Dr. Chang says stretching or warming up can prime your back for the movements involved.
He also offers these activity-specific tips to avoid spine injuries:
Skiing: Do 10 to 15 squats beforehand, standing with legs shoulder-width apart and slowing lowering your buttocks as you bend your knees over your feet.
Skating: Do 5 to 10 lunges beforehand, taking a large step forward with one foot while letting your back knee come down to the floor. Keep shoulders in position over your hips. Alternate feet and repeat.
Shoveling snow: After lightly stretching shoulder muscles, make sure you push snow straight ahead while shoveling instead of throwing snow. Avoid sudden twisting and turning motions, and bend knees if lifting snow. “Let leg and arm muscles do the work, not your back,” Dr. Chang advises.
Walking on icy surfaces: Wearing low-heeled shoes with proper traction outdoors during winter is the top tip to avoid an icy slip-up, Dr. Chang says. Also, carry lighter loads (like grocery bags) during inclement weather and keep hands free to balance or catch yourself if you start to fall. “Wet or frozen surfaces are often slippery, so be on the lookout for darker spots on pavement that can signal increased moisture or ice,” he suggests.
Diagnosing, treating back injuries takes comprehensive approach
If you injure your back during wintertime sports or chores despite your best efforts, it’s imperative to visit a spine physician. Dr. Chang says he obtains a complete history of symptoms in this situation to pinpoint the back problem and provide effective relief, asking patients: Where is your pain and when did it begin? How would you describe your pain? Does the pain radiate into your legs? Have you undergone any other prior treatments for this problem?
Diagnostic tests might also be ordered to shed further light on the injury, including electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies, x-rays or MRI images. As for treatment, conservative measures such as medication and physical therapy are almost always initially attempted to achieve pain relief before injections or surgery are considered.
“As with most health conditions, prevention is really better than the best cure,” Dr. Chang says. “We don’t need to sit by a cozy fire all winter – as tempting as it sounds – to avoid all back injuries during frigid winter months. Much of the power of prevention is in our own control.”
Kaliq Chang, MD, is an interventional pain management specialist board-certified in anesthesiology at Atlantic Spine Center.