Seniors vulnerable in winter weather

Thomas J. Zuesi

December 18, 2013

Every winter, we treat a number of weather-related injuries – dislocations, fractures, tears, sprains and strains – in our emergency department. With the earlier-than-normal accumulations of ice and snow, this season has been especially busy so far.

Slip and fall injuries are among our biggest concerns. They often lead to fractures, long recuperations and permanent life changes. Common fracture sites from falls are the hips, wrists, shoulders, ankles and spine.

Head injuries are another major concern because damage to the brain is difficult to treat and has potential long-term consequences.

To prevent falls, make sure you wear footwear with good traction, use handrails if available, keep walks and driveways clear of snow and ice, and test the ground in front of you before you step.

One of the biggest seasonal dangers is cold temperatures. Hypothermia (a lowering of the core body temperature) and frostbite (the freezing of body tissue) can threaten fingers, toes, overall health and even your life. When outside, dress in layers, wear a hat to retain body heat, and cover your mouth with a scarf to prevent cold air from entering your lungs.

Hypothermia symptoms include shivering, pale/ashy skin, a feeling of weakness and fatigue, slowed breathing and trouble walking.

Frostbite warning signs include a loss of feeling, and a pale, ashy appearance of the skin in the affected area. If you feel you may be experiencing tissue damage from overexposure, medical attention is immediately warranted.

We see a number of injuries related to participation in outdoor sports such as snow skiing, sledding, snowboarding and ice skating. To prevent injury, never participate alone, warm up thoroughly, always wear appropriate protective gear, drink plenty of water and make sure any equipment is in good working order. Many winter sports-related injuries occur near the end of the day when participants are tired and lose focus.

We encourage people to exercise year-round because effective exercise needs to be done on a near daily basis. But people may have to change their routines in the winter, exercising more indoors where the surfaces are less threatening and the temperature is controlled.

Shoveling snow exposes people to injuries ranging from pulled muscles to fatal heart attacks because it places a great deal of stress on the body in a short period of time. Be sure to lift with your leg muscles instead of your back, and take frequent rest breaks. Stop immediately if you experience chest tightness or pain in the chest or arm.

Winter weather should not be an excuse for inactivity. The benefits of an active lifestyle outweigh the risks, especially when caution, common sense and planning mitigate those risks. If you anticipate the bad weather and pay attention to your surroundings, you can avoid weather-related injuries and still remain active.

Dr. Zuesi is an emergency medicine physician at OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital.