Athletic Training Column

Winter weather safety tips

By Jenn Mroz | Jan 09, 2014

Old Man Winter is starting to set in and he’s bringing with him ice, snow and a bitter-cold wind.  While it would be ideal to stay snuggled under a warm blanket with a cup of hot chocolate until spring, we all have to leave the house at some point.  Today’s article will offer some helpful tips for completing some necessary tasks while avoiding injury.
I grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and briefly lived in Michigan during graduate school, so I like to think I know about snow.  But having lived in western North Carolina for the past 11 years, I’ve come to appreciate the “mild” winters here, and to realize that the winter weather in this part of the country has its own unique safety risks.  
Ice (especially when hidden under a thin layer of snow) is very treacherous to drivers and pedestrians alike.  It reminds me of working with an ice hockey team and having to go out onto the ice to tend to injured players.  I was so afraid of slipping and falling and needing medical services myself.
The first few times, one of my athletes or an official escorted me out.  Then I got the hang of shuffling my feet instead of trying to walk normally.  Bending my knees and lowering my center of gravity a little also helped with providing more stability.  These same tips can be helpful when crossing an icy parking lot or sidewalk.
I think I shoveled more snow in the two years I lived in Michigan than the rest of my life combined.  Lake-effect snow is not a myth!  I always started out enthusiastically, picking up full-shovel scoops and flinging the snow as far out of the way as I could.  But my muscles and my lungs tired quickly.  
I could feel one side of my back tightening up.  Only then did I remember proper mechanics.  When shoveling snow, take smaller scoops and toss it across a shorter distance.  Use your leg muscles, not your back, to lift the shovel.  Alternate which side of the body you use so that you’re not overworking one side.  I’ve found that when I use these tips, I actually get the snow removed faster, I enjoy it more, and I don’t feel sore afterwards.
During the summer months, we worry about the heat index.  The winter equivalent is called the wind chill factor.  The air temperature may be 20 degrees, but add wind to the conditions and the actual temperature may really feel like 5 degrees.  Proper attire can make outdoor activities much more enjoyable as well as safer.
Hypothermia and frostbite are preventable conditions.  Hypothermia is a condition where the body temperature drops below 95 degrees.  The body’s normal vital functions start to slow, and if not treated immediately, death can occur.  Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, confusion, pale skin, glassy eyes, and lack of coordination.  It is important to bring the body’s temperature up as quickly as possible.  
Removing the individual from the cold, adding additional clothing or blankets, using a hot water bottle on their trunk, or giving them a warm beverage to drink will help.  Since hypothermia is a life-threatening condition, contacting Emergency Services is also advised.
To prevent hypothermia, it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed.  Layering your clothing is important.  Not only can you add and remove layers as needed, but the layers actually insulate your body with warm air.  The trapped air in between each layer is warmed from your own body as it gives off heat, and in turn, helps keep your body temperature warm.  Since more than 50 percent of body heat escapes through your head and neck, wearing a hat and scarf is essential.
Frostbite causes tissue damage to your extremities, such as your fingers and toes, ears and nose.  It can also occur to the rest of your face or other exposed skin in extreme temperatures and wind.  Ice crystals form within the tissue.  In addition to numbness, frostbite also gives the skin a waxy appearance.  More severe cases develop blisters and can lead to permanent nerve damage or gangrene.  Keeping the skin covered during bitter wind chill conditions can prevent this.
If frostbite is suspected, it is important to re-warm the body part, but carefully.  Do not rub the affected area because this will cause more damage.  Use your own body heat (like placing your hands under your armpits) or wrap up in blankets and allow the tissue to re-warm gradually.  Seek further medical help to prevent permanent damage.
Just because the temperature is dropping, it doesn’t have to lead to hibernation.  With the proper precautions, being active in the outdoors during the winter months can be safe and enjoyable.  
Next time, I’ll discuss how to keep those New Year’s resolutions to get in shape.  Until then, stay healthy.