The first rule we should all follow in order to avoid accidents in winter is to stay at home whenever the roads are icy and slippery. That because sprains, fractures and contusions happen far more often in winter due to the ice and snow. Older people are especially vulnerable, but children and adults are at risk also. However, for most of us staying indoors whenever the weather is bad is just an unreachable luxury. So we often have to face our fears, take the risk, and start walking, no matter the weather. But even then, there are some precautions you can take to minimize the chances of an injury as much as possible.
What are the risks?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one out of four older people falls each year. This translates into millions of people falling each year. Why is this of concern? Because:
- One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury.
- Over 800,000 patients a year are hospitalized because of a fall injury, most often because of a head injury or hip fracture.
- Each year at least 300,000 older people are hospitalized for hip fractures.
- More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falling, usually by falling sideways.
- Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
- Falls can cause broken bones, like wrist, arm, ankle, and hip fractures.
- Falls can cause head injuries. These can be very serious, especially if the person is taking certain medicines (like blood thinners). An older person who falls and hits their head should see their doctor right away to make sure they don’t have a brain injury.
- Many people who fall, even if they’re not injured, become afraid of falling. This fear may cause a person to cut down on their everyday activities. When a person is less active, they become weaker and this increases their chances of falling.
- In 2015, the total medical costs for falls totaled more than $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid shouldered 75% of these costs.
Among the risk factors that contribute to falling in winter, CDC mentions:
- Lower body weakness
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Difficulties with walking and balance
- Use of medicines, such as tranquilizers, sedatives, or antidepressants. Even some over-the-counter medicines can affect balance and how steady you are on your feet.
- Vision problems
- Foot pain or poor footwear
Also, keep in mind that most falls are caused by a combination of risk factors, each factor added to the equation significantly increasing the chances of falling.
Tips for avoiding winter slips and falls
Leave 10-15 minutes earlier than you normally would
This way you won’t have to hurry and the slower and more careful you go, the slimmer are the chances of an injury. As a bonus, you avoid arriving late because of the bad weather.
Wear winter slip-proof boots
You can pack your “normal” shoes and, if you follow the previous step, you’ll have enough time to change for any occasion. But when walking on slippery surfaces it’s important that you wear shoes with soft, rubbery soles and avoid shoes with plastic soles and especially high heels.
Use your hands to maintain balance
Avoid carrying bags in your hands (use a backpack instead), don’t drink your coffee while walking, don’t talk on the phone and wear gloves so that you can keep your hands out of your pockets. Hands are very important for maintaining your balance and they can also protect your body if you do fall.
Walk like a penguin
Take little steps, look in front of you, extend your hands on one side of your body and the other for balance and lean the torso slightly forward so that the centre of gravity is on the front leg.
Climb stairs side ways
Walk sideways on the stairs. Put one leg on the first stair and bring the other one next to it, then repeat for the following stair. The key is to avoid to cross your legs, as this position is highly unstable.
Hold on to railing
If usually you tend to avoid handrails, in winter they should become your best friends, especially when walking up or down the stairs.
Be careful how you get out of the car
Whether you get out of your car or a bus or other means of public transport, you should be extra careful when putting your leg down. Your leg’s position and the way pressure falls on it tend to increase the risk of slipping and falling.
Watch out for surprises
Don’t relax the moment you’ve entered the building. The traces of melted snow left behind by the others can create a highly slippery surface.
Learn how to fall
It might sound weird, but this can save you from a serious injury. If you’re tense, the risk of a sprain or a fracture increases. Try to relax and work with gravity instead of acting against it. If you slip, allow yourself to fall gently on your buttocks.
Here are some additional recommendations by CDC:
Talk to Your Doctor
- Ask your doctor or healthcare provider to evaluate your risk for falling and talk with them about specific things you can do.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review your medicines to see if any might make you dizzy or sleepy. This should include prescription medicines and over-the counter medicines.
- Ask your doctor or healthcare provider about taking vitamin D supplements.
Do Strength and Balance Exercises
Do exercises that make your legs stronger and improve your balance. Tai Chi is a good example of this kind of exercise.
Have Your Eyes Checked
Have your eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year, and be sure to update your eyeglasses if needed. If you have bifocal or progressive lenses, you may want to get a pair of glasses with only your distance prescription for outdoor activities, such as walking. Sometimes these types of lenses can make things seem closer or farther away than they really are.