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The Holiday Health Risk You Probably Don’t Expect

When you think of holiday health risks, a few things probably come to mind. During this time of year, overindulging in rich foods can lead to health problems. Drinking too much alcohol can leave you with a hangover and impact your health in the long term. Driving home from late parties can bring the dangers of sharing the road with impaired drivers.

But you might not realize that holiday activities can put you in a position to hurt your back. “People rush because they’re so busy, and they do things they only do once a year,” said John Sollenberger, DO, a sports medicine physician and rehabilitation specialist at Banner – University Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute. “They can set themselves up for injury.”

Dr. Sollenberger shared some common holiday-related back injuries and tips for avoiding them.

Hauling home a tree

A six to seven-foot Christmas tree can weigh 30 to 70 pounds. And even when you’re accustomed to heavy lifting, the tree’s awkward size and the various ways you move it—onto and off your car, through doorways and into your tree stand—can set you up to injure your back as you lift and twist.

How to stay safe: Let the experts at the tree stand load your tree for you. Have one or two other people help you carry in and set up your tree when you get home. Be careful not to twist while you’re carrying the tree. If a real tree isn’t manageable for you, switch to an artificial tree that comes in pieces, so you don’t have to carry everything at once.

Decking the halls

When you’re hanging lights outside or ornaments on your tree, it can be tempting to stretch as far as possible and to stand on whatever’s handy to reach the perfect spot. But repetitive overstretching can strain your back, and standing on furniture, ladders or getting on the roof can set you up for falls.

How to stay safe: Use a step stool or ladder to reach those high spots safely and reposition it before you find yourself overreaching to prevent injury. “Better to take 10 seconds to move your stool and to be in a good, safe position than to spend the next few weeks healing from a back injury,” Dr. Sollenberger said.

Shopping ’til you drop

Marathon shopping sessions can be hard on your back. If you’re walking from store to store, standing in long lines and carrying lots of bags full of gifts you might feel the strain and experience back pain.

How to stay safe: Wear comfortable, supportive shoes. If possible, break your shopping up into multiple shorter trips—pace yourself. During longer shopping sessions, stop and sit for a few minutes to give your back a rest. Bring heavy or awkward items out to your car right away, so you don’t have to keep carrying them. And consider online shopping for large packages.

Taking to the skies

If air travel is part of your holiday plans, be careful with your luggage. Lifting an oversized suitcase full of your clothes, shoes and gifts for family and friends can put you at risk for a back injury.

How to stay safe: Consider packing what you need in two or more smaller bags instead of one large bag. Paying an extra bag fee might be worth it if it helps you avoid a back injury. If you’re visiting loved ones, pack only what you need and borrow things like heavy coats and hair dryers. And ship gifts directly to recipients instead of bringing them with you.

Hitting the road

When you’re driving to your destination, it’s tempting to keep moving. You may only want to stop for food, gas and to use the restroom. But sitting in a car for extended periods is bad for your back. “Long road trips are especially tough on the driver, who can’t shift position as much,” said Dr. Sollenberger. Frequently changing your position is good for your low back.

How to stay safe: Stop every two hours and get out of the car, walk around and stretch. When you stop for food, get out of the car rather than using the drive-thru. If possible, take turns driving and consider using a lumbar support in your car seat.

Wrapping presents

When it’s time to wrap your gifts, you probably clear off your kitchen table, stand alongside it and get to work. But leaning over to cut wrapping paper and reaching around large boxes can overtax your back.

How to stay safe: If possible, wrap a few gifts at a time instead of tackling everything at once. Again, pace yourself. (Admittedly, this can be tough for parents of young children, who might not have much time to wrap gifts when the kids aren’t around.) When you are gift wrapping, transition from sitting to standing and vice versa. Frequently changing position can help avoid low back pain flares. Take advantage of the gift-wrapping services some stores and online retailers offer.

Thinking you’re a kid again

Young nieces, nephews and cousins you haven’t seen in a while might want to get you playing with them when you’re visiting for the holidays. Spending time with them is great—just remember you’re no longer their age. Activities that are easy for kids and teens can be tough on older backs.

How to stay safe: Remind yourself of your limits. It’s great to be active, but maybe your skateboarding days are behind you. Take walks or bike rides with the kids and wind down with board games or movies. What they want most is to spend time with you.

The bottom line

The once-a-year activities of the holiday season can bring the risk of back injuries. Stay active and make healthy lifestyle choices.  Follow these tips to enjoy the holidays and help avoid injury or low back pain flares this winter. If you would like to talk to a health care professional about your back, visit

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