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Winter Wellness: Safeguarding Your Back During Cold Weather Adventures

People tend to have strong opinions about the winter. Some love the crisp days and chilly evenings and look forward to a clean blanket of snow covering the landscape. Others can’t stand the cold and tolerate the time until spring arrives.

Whatever your opinion, if you live in a cold climate you have to deal with winter. Winter and winter activities have some unique health risks that could lead to back pain. Read on for tips about cold weather back care.

Why winter can be hard on your back

There are a few factors that link winter activities and back health: 

  • It’s cold: The drop in temperature can make your muscles and ligaments less flexible. They are more likely to tighten, which can lead to muscle strains and other injuries. “We tighten our muscles in colder weather as part of staying warm,” said Debra Petty, a physical therapist with Banner Health.
  • It’s slippery: You can slip and fall on snow or ice. Sudden jerks, twists or impacts can strain your back muscles and ligaments.
  • You’re less active: You might not get as much physical activity when the days are cold and short. That can weaken your muscles and reduce your flexibility, making you more likely to be injured.
  • You’re trying winter sports: When you are active in winter, you might be skiing, snowboarding or ice skating. Falls and sudden movements in these activities can hurt your back.
  • You’re not warming up: You’re not taking the time to get your muscles warm and moving before winter sports or chores. 
  • You’re shoveling and lifting: The bending and twisting of snow shoveling and lifting heavy bags of winter supplies can strain your back, especially if you’re not using good lifting techniques in winter.
  • You’re not sitting correctly: You might spend more time indoors in the winter, reading or viewing screens. Poor posture and a lack of movement can cause back or joint pain.
  • You’re prepping for the holidays: Getting ready for winter celebrations can have you making unfamiliar movements that could hurt your back.
  • You’ve gained weight: Holiday weight gain is common and it can stress your lower back.
  • You’re stressed: The stress of the holiday season can cause muscle tension, and tense muscles are more likely to be injured.

A good warm-up helps protect your back

It’s important to warm up before all winter activities, whether you need to tackle chores or you’re out having fun in the snow. Warming up is a key part of back injury prevention in winter.

Warming up prepares your body for activity, lowers your risk of injury and improves your performance. It increases your blood flow, relaxes and lengthens your muscles, makes your joints less stiff and prepares your mind for what’s next.

Try these winter warm-up exercises before you head outdoors. Be sure to move at a gentle pace and don’t force any movements:  

  • March in place: Stand in one spot and march in place for one to two minutes, lifting your knees as comfortably as possible. 
  • Arm circles: Reach your arms out to the sides and make small circles with your hands, then gradually make them larger. After 30 seconds, circle your arms in the other direction. 
  • Leg swings: Hold onto a wall or a chair for balance. Swing one leg forward and backward like a pendulum. Slowly increase the range of motion. Swing each leg for 30 seconds. 
  • Neck rolls: Gently roll your head in a circle for 30 seconds in each direction. 
  • Side-to-side torso twists: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put your hands on your hips and gently twist your upper body from side to side for 30 seconds. 
  • Ankle circles: Sit on the edge of a chair with your feet off the ground. Circle your ankles in both directions for 30 seconds each. 
  • Knee hugs: Stand up straight and hug one knee to your chest, holding it for 10 to 15 seconds. Repeat with the other knee. 
  • Calf raises: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and rise onto your tiptoes, then lower your heels back to the ground. Repeat for one to two minutes. 

Snow shoveling safety tips

Shoveling snow is a major risk factor for back injuries in the winter. “Shoveling snow is not an activity that most of us do often, so our muscles and bodies are not used to it,” said Petty. It’s also risky for your heart health since it can lead to overexertion, which can raise your heart rate and blood pressure.

Before you head out to tackle the snow, warm up. Then dress for winter warmth, including layers to protect against the cold. Wear boots or winter shoes with good traction so you’re less likely to slip and fall.

You might be tempted to wait until the storm ends to shovel. But it’s better for your back to clear smaller amounts of snow more often instead of shoveling a lot of snow all at once.

Use good lifting techniques for snow removal and back health:

  • Only put a small amount of snow on the shovel. Or use a smaller shovel to reduce the weight of each load. Try an ergonomic shovel, which is designed to lower strain on your back.
  • Bend your knees and lift with your legs, not your back. 
  • Keep your back straight and avoid twisting motions. “After picking up the snow, move your feet to face the direction where you want to offload the snow instead of twisting your back,” said Petty.
  • Push the snow instead of lifting it when possible — a shovel with a longer handle can help.

Take breaks often. “Stop and stand upright while you’re shoveling snow,” said Petty. Shoveling snow is hard work. Give your body a chance to rest and be sure to drink plenty of water.

If you must clear a large area, invest in a snow blower, if possible. If there’s a lot of snow to move or you have health concerns, consider asking family members, neighbors or professionals for help. And be sure to talk to your doctor if you’re worried about how shoveling snow might impact your health.

Staying safe during winter sports

Being outside and physically active on snowy or icy days can be exhilarating. Be sure to warm up, dress for the weather, stay hydrated and listen to your body. Winter sports and back injuries don’t have to go hand in hand.

If the weather is extremely cold, icy or snowy, outdoor activities might not be safe. You could be at risk for falls or frostbite. Try indoor winter workouts like yoga, stretching or exercises in your living room to stay active indoors.

What if you hurt your back?

If your back starts to hurt, stop what you’re doing, go inside and apply ice or heat. You may want to take over-the-counter (OTC) medication to reduce the pain and swelling.

If back pain during snowy weather is severe or doesn’t start to feel better in a few days, contact your health care provider to get professional help for winter back pain.

The bottom line

From winter sports to shoveling snow, cold weather activities put you at risk for back pain. But you can help keep your back strong and healthy by being aware of the risks, warming up, lifting properly and taking breaks. 

If you’re concerned about a winter weather back injury or your back is bothering you after winter activities, reach out to your primary care provider or an expert at Banner Health.

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