Back Pain and Injury Prevention in Winter

As the Game of Thrones line goes, “winter is coming”. We all know it. We do live in Canada, after all. With our beloved winter comes snow, and with snow comes ice. Both snow and ice can carry increased health risks for anyone other than the snowbirds who flock to Florida soon after hockey season starts, and don’t return until playoff time. While some of these health risks might seem obvious for many of us, some aren’t and I’d like to cover some of each, starting with the most obvious of winter situations where there is an increased risk of injury.

Snow shovelling probably comes to mind as one winter activity where there is a risk of injury. The first health risk you’d probably think of is straining or pulling a muscle, or causing some straining injury to your back. While this is the most obvious and likely casualty of snow shoveling, you might be surprised that a recent study in Quebec men found that in winter months of November to April, 33% of hospital admissions for heart attacks during that period occurred the day after a heavy snowfall (eight inches or more), and a whopping 60% of fatal heart attacks (those causing death) were in men admitted to hospital the day after a heavy snowfall. There is a huge cardiovascular demand on the heart when shoveling snow, so pace yourself.

Don’t shovel without sleeves! LOL!

Before beginning any snow removal, warm up for five to ten minutes to get your joints moving and increase blood circulation. A brisk walk will do it. Push the snow to one side and avoid throwing it. If you must throw it, avoid twisting and turning — position yourself to throw straight at the snow pile. Use your knees, leg and arm muscles to do the pushing and lifting while keeping your back straight, what’s also called a ‘neutral spine’ – neither flexed forward nor arched back. Work at a pace that would still allow you to carry on a conversation if someone were standing beside you. Follow these tips to decrease your risk of lower back injury, or worse yet, something as severe as a heart attack. Once you’re done shoveling your driveway and walkways, don’t forget traction aids such as road salt or other ice melting products, to reduce the risk of slipping and falling on any slippery surfaces. These events can lead to a number of injuries, from muscle strains, ligament sprains, or other back or neck injuries, including whiplash, to more serious injuries such as bone fractures, concussions, or worse.

When all the hard work is done, and you’ve returned inside, spend a few extra minutes to stretch out those muscles you’ve just used. Avoid jerking or twisting movements, as they can be just as harmful as not properly stretching and cooling down to avoid tight muscles from seizing up on you now and later, and to let your heart rate return to its resting pace.
Nearly all lower back injuries or other sprains and strains can be safely and effectively treated with conservative care options such as chiropractic adjustments, massage therapy or physiotherapy. These are injuries we see every day in our clinic.

We also see a number of injuries due to motor vehicle accidents, most commonly whiplash. What’s worse, or probably more common is that we meet new patients who come to us after suffering chronic pain for years after a motor vehicle accident that they never received proper treatment for. While there is often some permanency and their chronic pain becomes more a question of how to best manage it, many of these old injuries can still be treated with a great deal of success. More importantly, treating these injuries when they’ve just happened is a huge factor in completely recovering from them, and not declining into this chronic pain situation.

Since we’re on the topic of back pain and the injuries that cause it, let’s not forget that while neck pain due to whiplash is the most common injury due to a motor vehicle accident, what’s often overlooked is the impact of the collision forces on the lower back of someone involved in a motor vehicle accident. Consider that most collisions are bumper to bumper, which in most cars, and to a less extent in trucks or SUVs, are at a similar level to where the person’s lower back is positioned in any seat in the vehicle. The force of the impact, while partially absorbed by crumple zones, transfers directly through the vehicle at this level and can significantly impact the lower back of any passenger. It is very common for people involved in motor vehicle accident to suffer pain in both the neck and the lower back. Professional advice of rest and a few pills is all you need is old thinking, and it’s wrong. Giving someone involved in motor vehicle accident a clean bill of health simply because they have no fractures, injuries or wounds requiring surgery or other treatment is simply not enough, and very shortsighted. Often times, symptoms of their injuries don’t surface until a few days or even weeks after the accident occurred.

In my clinic, our team sees the aftermath of all manner of injuries, new and old. The newer injuries have the fastest and best recovery. The old ones, not so much. If you’ve suffered an injury, don’t wait. Get properly evaluated and treated. If you’ve been suffering with chronic pain, there is still help for you.

I hope you never suffer any of the injuries that I write about above. If you do, I hope you seek the proper treatment and receive the care you deserve. In any event, I wish you safe shovelling and safe driving this winter.