Be Well: A Guide to Avoiding Falls, Twists, and Tweaks

From Mpls.St.Paul Magazine’s Be Well:

In Minnesota and other snowy places, a slip or fall is not only a risk, it’s pretty much destiny if you spend much time outdoors. And this winter, with people limiting COVID-19 exposure by taking walks instead of going to the gym, footing is even more tenuous.

There are some simple strategies to help you avoid falls on icy trails, paths, and sidewalks—and to speed recovery if you do take a tumble.

For Amy L. Horton, DC, DIBCN, FIACN, a chiropractor specialized in neurology at Northwestern Health Sciences University in Bloomington, the most common injuries she sees after a snowstorm are from falling and shoveling.

“The wrists, knees, and back of the head are what tend to be traumatized most frequently with a fall,” she says. “With shoveling, it’s really the lift and twist that torques the lower back and spasms the muscles.”

Horton and other health professionals are trained to treat the pain, but she says some commonsense choices can help you avoid slips or shoveling strain and pain.

Avoid the Dance and Relax

“If you know you’re going down, the instinct is that we try to hold ourselves up and end up doing that little dance,” she says. The result is often a less than graceful fall. Instead, she recommends that if you are falling, let your muscles relax and go a little bit limp.

“If you can get yourself to fall more on your side or someplace that is a little fleshier and not so hard and bony, roll a bit and get to your side, it can take that force and spread it out,” she says.

Prepare and Pay Attention: Tips for enjoying your walk

  • Dress warmly and warm up your muscles before you set out. Warm muscles are more relaxed and less prone to injury.
  • Wear rubber-soled boots or shoes for better traction.
  • Invest in a pair of ice grippers that you can pull on over your soles.
  • Walk in daylight to better see patchy ice or slick spots.
  • Widen your stance and slow down a bit where it’s not dry.
  • Don’t walk with your hands in your pockets, because that can throw off your balance and lead to harder falls.
  • Engage your core to help with balance and get some ab work while walking.
    Kinder, Gentler Shoveling

If you are doing the “lift and twist” while shoveling, your lower back has probably been telling you there is a better way.

Many injuries, Horton says, “come from lifting and trying to scoop that snow up and toss it over to the side of the driveway or the sidewalk or trying to pile it up.” But she has a couple suggestions to help you clear the driveway without back pain:

  • Buy a smaller shovel, preferably a lightweight, plastic one. It will force you to lift the snow in smaller scoops.
  • Hold the shovel with one hand close to the blade when lifting snow, so you are nearer the snow weight.
  • Stay squared off to the shovel blade and keep the snow in front of you. If you must toss it, don’t twist and throw; toss the snow forward.

After the Fall

It has happened to all of us. We slip and fall and then spring up in case somebody saw it. But Horton says that instinct is the totally wrong response.

“What you don’t want to do is jump up, just in case the adrenaline has taken over and is masking an injury,” she says. “You don’t want to make it worse by weight-bearing.”

Her advice is to pause, take a few breaths and see where the pain is, get up slowly and test your weight before you continue your walk.

“Make sure nothing feels broken or like you are going to injure it more,” she says.

Where Does it Hurt?

Most likely, you will have a bruise or an achy spot where you landed. Then the best treatment is the RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate.

Horton says there are some supplements that can help relieve pain and swelling. Arnica is widely available as an oral supplement, cream or gel for pain relief. Other topical pain relievers include Biofreeze and Tiger Balm. Magnesium is a good muscle relaxant. Start with 100-200 mg, and check with your doctor before increasing the dose, she says. You might even apply Kinesio tape to reduce swelling and promote healing. (Kinesio tape is the colorful, flexible tape used by athletes for sore muscles.)

If, after a day or two, you are still in significant pain, it’s time to seek professional help. Your family doctor or a chiropractor, like Horton, can help with pain relief and promote healing.

“It’s never a waste of a visit to go in and have something checked and be OK,” she says. “You’re not wasting your time. You’re not wasting the doctor’s time just to make sure everything is fine.”

So go out confidently and enjoy this winter—carefully.