On the way to work, Jane stepped off her porch. She didn’t notice the clear black ice at the base of her steps. Her right leg went out from under her as her left leg stayed on the step. She heard the pop as she felt the crack. Jane couldn’t move. She yelled for help as searing pain tore through her knee. Fortunately, her neighbor heard her cries for help. He rushed to her side and called 9-1-1. A medical exam confirmed that Jane had broken her knee cap and had torn all the ligaments in her knee.

Wisconsin isn’t called the frozen tundra for nothing. It’s the land of ice, snow, and frigid temperatures from late November to early April. If you live and play in Wisconsin or other northern states in the winter, we have some sobering news; the risk for orthopedic injury all around you.

Shoveling and Scraping

Snow falls are dreaded by some and welcomed by others. But, no matter how you feel about snow, the fresh blanket of white needs to cleared from your car, steps, sidewalks, and driveway.

Early morning and late evening snow shoveling can be fraught with injuries as you hurry to get to work. Each year emergency rooms treat an average of 11,500 injuries due to shoveling. These visits include injuries from physical exhaustion, slips, falls, and being hit with the shovel. Low-back injuries top the list. They were more than double rotator cuff, arm, hand or head injuries.

Whether you shovel and scrape before work, after work or through the day, keep these ice-scraping and snow-shoveling tips in mind to avoid injury.

Slow down. Moving too fast in slippery conditions puts you at risk for slips, falls and strained muscles.

Check the weather forecast before you go to bed. Like waking up late, trying to clear snow from your car or your driveway before work can be a lousy way to start your day. If your local meteorologist predicts significant snowfall or an ice storm the night before, reset your alarm. Allowing ample time to clear snow and ice from your car and other surfaces helps you avoid injury and stress.

Don’t overreach when scraping snow off your car. The combination of cold temperatures and overreaching can strain the muscles in the back and neck. Make sure your footing is secure. Hold the scraper a comfortable distance from you as you scrape snow and ice from your windshield, hood, and back window.

Use proper form. Of course, like other activities, there is a right way and a wrong way to shovel. Remember:

  • Keep your back straight.
  • Don’t hunch over.
  • Lift with your legs, not your spine.
  • If a full shovel is too heavy to lift comfortably, use a smaller shovel or fill your shovel with less snow.

Push more than you shovel. Don’t put your back into it; instead, use your shovel as a plow as often as possible. When you have to lift, lift through your legs.

When shoveling with other people, make sure you know where they are. Children have a 15 percent higher risk of being hit in the head with a shovel than older people. Some of these accidents cause severe concussions and facial cuts.

Select the right shovel. Lightweight shovels can lighten your load and put less stress and strain on your lower back and neck muscles. Use a shovel that fits your height and your strength level.

Ergonomically designed shovels lower your risk of back injury. These types of shovels work best for walkways, sidewalks, and driveways.

Shovel often. By the inch, it’s a cinch; by the yard, it’s hard. Shoveling snow several times during a storm instead of entering a snow-shoveling marathon reduces your risk of injury. You can pace yourself, stay ahead of the snow, avoid overexertion and long exposures to cold temperatures. The best part of shoveling multiple times throughout the storm is being able to take a break and rest tired muscles.

Common injuries due to scraping and shoveling:

Concussions from impact with a shovel
Torn rotator cuffs
Back strain
Lower back pain

Slipping and Falling

Staying active during the winter months can be a challenge. Unless you stay inside from November to June, you will probably walk on ice and snow at some point. After a snowstorm or an early morning fog, steps, sidewalks, and parking lots become skating rinks for unsuspecting walkers.

An icy glaze known as black ice can make walking extremely treacherous. One misstep can result in a severe concussion, broken bones, groin pulls, torn ligaments, or bruised muscles.

Falls can be especially perilous for children and seniors. Children often risk concussion, while older people have a higher risk of breaking a leg, hip, or shoulder during a fall. Many seniors have a fear of falling.

Before taking a step, assess the surface conditions and use special care when walking across wet, ice-covered, or snowy areas.

Common injuries due to falls include:

Head injuries or concussions
Fractured wrists and arms
Broken legs and hips
Torn ligaments
Rolled or twisted ankles
Back injuries

Do you know which winter sports cause the most injuries?

Cold, snow, and ice offer Wisconsin residents a wide array of winter activities. But, winter sports also bring the risk of injury.

In 2015, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported more than 246,000 people experienced injuries related to winter sports, including sprains, strains, fractures, and dislocations. People were injured while:

  • Snow skiing – 88,000
  • Snowboarding – 61,000
  • Ice skating – 50,000
  • Sledding, tobogganing, and tubing – 47,000

Winter accidents can and do happen. But, there are a few precautions you can take to minimize their impact on your bones and joints.

Take steps to prevent winter sports injuries.

Everyone who enjoys winter sports is at risk for injury. Even the most experienced skier cannot predict the icy patches on the slope or prepare for a snowboarder careening into his or her path. Here a few safeguards to keep in mind.

Check the weather. Avoid weather that increases your risk of injury. Ice storms, high winds, and below-zero temperatures can make you more susceptible to a serious injury.

Know your physical limits. If you lead a sedentary life but want to get outside this winter, ease yourself into activities. Start slow and gradually build your level of fitness. Start by walking around the block. Then walk a mile, then two. When your body is physically able to handle that exertion, move on to activities that require more effort from your heart, lungs, and muscles.

If you are starting a sport, take a lesson. If you’ve never walked on snowshoes or used cross-country skis before, take a lesson from an instructor. Learning proper technique is one of the best ways to prevent injuries.

Dress appropriately and use proper equipment. Dress in layers to stay warm and dry. Wear a helmet, goggles, gloves, and other protective gear recommended for your activity. With concerns about concussions, many primary care providers recommend wearing helmets while sledding, tubing, and tobogganing.

Stop when you feel tired. Many injuries happen after a full day of activity. Tired muscles and mental fatigue can slow reaction times. Don’t let your last run down the slope end with a dislocated shoulder because you are tired.

Stop the activity if you feel pain. Unless you are preparing for competition under the watchful eyes of a sports medicine specialist or athletic trainer, don’t push through pain or discomfort. If you feel pain, stop. Continuing could turn a minor injury a major condition. Pain is the body’s signal that something is wrong. When it comes to pain, listen to your body. It’s better to be safe than sorry and out of commission.

Winter activities can create hours of fun and exercise. They can also cause a multitude of injuries when mixed with physical exertion, low temperatures, and repetitive motions.

Some of the most common orthopedic injuries caused by winter sports include:

Concussions and head injuries
Back injuries
Neck pain
Shoulder injuries
Knee pain
Twisted ankles
Torn ligaments and rotator cuffs
Soft-tissue injuries

If you experience a painful injury this winter, seek medical treatment immediately. Contact your primary care provider, an orthopedic specialist, or visit an emergency room or walk-in care center for diagnosis and treatment.