Man in office uniform having back pain / back injury

Jess Jewett, MD, emergency medicine director, Cache Valley Hospital

You might love winter, but if you have back problems, you probably prefer spending the colder months indoors. Not only can the harsh weather increase symptoms of arthritis, but the icy environment can lead to slip-and-fall accidents. Regardless of the cause, pain, stiffness, decreased physical activity and loss of time on the job are often the results.

If you’re hoping to enjoy winter this year (and survive all the work that comes with it), it’s important to keep your back in good health. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  1. Clear the walkways. Icy walkways send more than a few victims to the doctor each year. Abruptly falling onto a hard surface can cause a myriad of injuries; many severe enough to limit your mobility or painfully remind you of that fall. Simply clearing the walkway of snow might not be enough. Keep ice and slush from accumulating and apply salt, sand, kitty litter or sawdust.
  2. Shovel with care. You might not mind going outside to keep your sidewalk and driveway clear, but your back might not be as enthusiastic. In fact, a 2011 study by the Center for Injury Research and Policy reported an average of 11,500 emergency room visits each year are due to snow shoveling. Of those visits, more than 34 percent were because of lower back injuries. If you need to shovel, treat this activity as you would an exercise routine. First, you’ll want to warm up and stretch. To ensure optimal muscle health, make sure you repeat those stretches when you are finished working in the cold.
  3. Know your limits. Low back pain is the number one cause of disability worldwide. That’s why it’s important to understand and recognize your limits when it comes to physical labor and activity. Take frequent breaks when you’re working outside and don’t put yourself in precarious situations. It really is OK to let the pros brush the snow off your roof. Don’t let a back injury disrupt your plans for enjoying your favorite wintertime activities.
  4. Dress the part. If you’re wearing seasonally inappropriate clothing this winter, your back might soon tell you that it’s time for a pair of heavy-soled snow boots. Make sure you’re wearing non-skid footwear when snow, slush and ice cover walkways and parking lots. Additionally, cold temperatures can exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis, so dress warmly before heading outside if you suffer from this condition.
  5. Hit the gym. It doesn’t matter whether you work out at the gym or in your living room. Engaging in some physical activity each day is a critical component of protecting your back during the winter. Staying as active as possible can help you reduce your injuries and keep your spine healthy. Most importantly, make sure to plan ahead and make room for your chosen physical activity regularly.