Spine Injury Prevention Tips for Cold Weather

Four steps to help you keep your back and neck injury-free during winter activities throughout the cold months.

As the temperatures dip, a new crop of activities gets their day in the sun. Skiing, skating, and sledding are fun and effective ways get your exercise throughout the winter, but they can pose a threat to your spine without proper care and consideration.

Robert Hayden, DC, PhD, FICC, a spokesperson for the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) and chiropractor in Griffin, GA, shares 4 steps to prevent cold and winter weather activity-related injuries. Dr. Hayden’s advice includes stretches to keep your muscles warm throughout the cold months.

fastening red ski boots on snowy slopeMake sure you are prepared ahead of time to help prevent back and neck pain. Slips and falls can happen whether you are skiing the slopes or walking on snowy surfaces.
Step 1: Get the Green Light from Your Doctor"
Winter sports and activities have more inherent risk because the environment is typically cold and slick. An afternoon at the skating rink or sledding hill seems harmless enough, but a fall or crash can have significant consequences—even if you don’t have an existing back or neck-related condition. That’s why you should give your doctor a call to get his or her approval first.

Dr. Hayden said people with certain spinal conditions should be extra cautious. “I’d be very careful with spinal stenosis, either lumbar or cervical,” he said. “It’s also possible that people with certain spinal conditions may not have full sensation in their extremities, and that’s really important in your feet because touch receptors in feet are important to your sense of balance.”

Step 2: Bundle Up
Dr. Hayden said wearing layers is one of the most important things you should do when outdoors on a chilly day. Layered clothing not only keeps you comfortable, but it also has major implications for your heart.

“When people go outside in the cold without layers, they get chilled, their skin turns blue, and that means blood is being shunted from the skin to other places in the body,” he said. “That stresses the cardiovascular system when it’s done quickly. If you have any underlying vascular disease, you might get chest pains on a chilly day.”

Outside of liberally layering, Dr. Hayden said proper footwear is essential to protecting your back. Avoid shoes with a slick sole, which promote falls and boosts your risk for a spine fracture.

“When the ground is slick, wear something with a tread to give you better traction,” Dr. Hayden said. “For walking, it’s crucial for the shoe to support all 3 arches of your foot.”

Dr. Hayden said he has yet to see a commercially available shoe that supports all 3 foot arches. He often recommends prescription shoe inserts—also called orthotics—to patients who want total foot support.

Step 3: Stretch It Out
Regardless of the activity, warming up your muscles before you hit the slopes, rink, or sledding hill is key to helping to prevent injury, Dr. Hayden said.

“Gentle stretches to loosen up muscles before any activity is critical,” he said. “Tense muscles quickly go into spasm.”

Some stretches are ideally suited for specific winter activities, and Dr. Hayden shared his favorites below:

Skiing:

  • Do 10 to 15 deep squats to warm the quadriceps—the muscles in the front of thighs. “Those muscles give spring to your legs when skiing,” Dr. Hayden said.

man and woman perform squat exerciseSimple squats can help you warm your quadricep muscles located in the front your thighs.

  • Stand with your feet and knees close together, put your hands on your knees, and rotate your knees in large circles. “This will stretch the ligaments in the inside and outsides of knees—those take quite a beating with skiing,” he said.

Skating:

  • Lunges are the stretch of choice for skating. They target the psoas muscles, or hip flexors. Make sure to do both sides (right leg forward, left back, and vice versa). “Lunges loosen some large muscles that are attached to lumbar spine and thigh bone,” Dr. Hayden said. “They tend to get tight among people who have to sit a lot in their jobs, so don’t go straight from the computer desk to the skating rink.”

women performing lunge exercise with small hand-held weightsUsing hand-held weights is not necessary when performing lunges.

Sledding:

  • Lying down, bring your knees up to your chest as far as they’ll comfortably go and hold for 5-10 seconds. If you want a deeper stretch, you can ask a partner to help. With you lying on your back, your partner can gently push your leg toward the same shoulder, then to the opposite shoulder 10 to 15 times per leg. “Sledding means you’ll be in a crouched position, and a good knee chest stretch is good for that,” Dr. Hayden said.

knee to chest stretching exercises are performed while laying on the backWhile laying on your back, gently pull your knee toward your chest to stretch back and leg muscles.

When you finish your activity, Dr. Hayden recommends repeating these dynamic stretches as a cool down. 

“After that kind of exercise [eg, skiing], your body temperature goes up because of the muscle activity,” he said. “When you’re warm all over, that’s a great time to repeat these stretches.”

Step 4: Don’t Let the Cold Keep You on the Couch
Some think the best way to prevent injury is not to engage in winter activities at all, but Dr. Hayden said that logic doesn’t hold up.

“There are a lot of us who stop exercising because it’s cold,” he said. “I’d caution against that because when you stop doing physical activity because it’s cold, it sets you up for injury in the spring.”

If you’re not able or interested in winter sports like skiing, skating, and snowboarding, Dr. Hayden said walking is a great way to stay conditioned during the winter months. His top walking safety tips include wearing supportive shoes with tread to prevent slips and layered clothing for warmth, along with taking breaks to rest your muscles. He also shares a lesser-known suggestion to ward off some common winter illnesses.

  • “Don’t go outside when it’s cold and mouth breathe—breathe through your nose,” Dr. Hayden said. “Air through your nose is humidified and warmed before it hits your trachea, which can prevent bronchitis and pneumonia.”

Staying conditioned in the winter can infuse new life into a season that many associate with hibernation and inactivity. By following Dr. Hayden’s simple steps for injury prevention, your spine can feel healthy and strong all year long.

Updated on: 11/13/17
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