Icy weather may look beautiful, but it can pose a lot of problems. The worst thing about icy weather is the increased risk of falling and breaking or fracturing a bone, which may mean a long spell of pain, possible dysfunction, and certainly many months of rehabilitation.
We are all at risk of injury by falling or slipping on ice or snow, but elderly people are especially vulnerable. It is worth being proactive when the weather warnings begin and start planning now how you will adapt to these different conditions to keep yourself injury free.
1. Slow down:
Do not rush around or run outdoors during icy weather. Moving more slowly gives you extra time to react to any sudden slips.
Slide your feet as you move, keeping both feet in contact with the unstable surface. Avoid quickly turning when moving on ice, puddles, or other slippery surfaces.
2. Change how you move on ice:
Turn your feet outwards (like a penguin). This position increases your base of support to improve balance. Spreading out your arms as you move will improve your ability to withstand rotational forces, giving you enough time to correct yourself if you start to slip.
Try to relax your body when moving on a slippery surface. If you are tense, you will be unable to adjust quickly to a sudden slip. Bending your knees more as you move brings your body closer to the ground, improving your stability.
Taking shorter steps is a great way to feel more secure on any unstable surface. This allows your body to get used to a different surface and improves your chances of regaining control if you slip.
3. Brace Yourself:
Use cars, walls or stationary objects to brace and balance yourself. Hold onto railings firmly when using outdoor stairs or ramps.
Be careful getting out of your car after a journey. You may have entered the car from a normal surface but may encounter a less stable surface getting out, so hold the car door for support to prevent a sudden slip on a hidden icy patch.
4. Be aware of your footwear:
Avoid any shoes with smooth soles or high heels during icy spells as you will have less traction and balance and are more likely to fall.
Invest in solid boots with ankle support for winter or keep a pair of ice grips handy. Putting a pair of socks over boots will improve your grip if you find yourself without the right footwear during a sudden temperature drop.
Pay attention to your footwear and position when doing seemingly easy tasks like scraping ice off the car, especially in the dark.
5. Heed weather warnings:
Stock up on gritting salt and doorstep defroster in advance and use it outside your home and office when there is a weather warning for ice or snow in your area.
Plan how you will make an early morning journey during an icy weather warning, especially if you have been diagnosed with osteopenia or osteoporosis. If you can wait until the ice thaws, do so.
6. Be Vigilant:
Approach every surface with caution and assume that all dark, wet areas on pavements are icy and slippery. Be aware that small areas may have been missed, or new ice may have formed since the last salting, especially in shaded areas.
Walk on main paths and roads as much as possible. Taking shortcuts over frozen areas or snow can be dangerous, as ice can be difficult to see both during the day and at night.
7. Lighten your load:
Keep your hands and arms free as much as possible for better balance. Use a shopping trolley for support rather than carrying heavy bags.
Avoid carrying small children on icy surfaces, as this will reduce your balance and make you more likely to fall, risking injury to yourself and the small child.
8. Support small children and the elderly:
Reduced balance and reaction times are common problems in older people due to decreased muscle strength and increased joint stiffness. Elderly relatives and neighbours may need your physical support or some help with daily groceries during icy spells.
It is important to take falls prevention very seriously in older people, as the consequences can have a significant impact on a person’s health and independence.
Children will also need to be encouraged to slow down and stop running, as they do not see the dangers but can hurt themselves easily if they fall on ice.
9. Better balance:
Be proactive if you have reduced balance reactions, either due to age or after an ankle or knee injury, and practice balance exercises daily. This will help to prepare you for walking on slippery surfaces where your natural balance may be compromised. Your Chartered Physiotherapist can advise you on how to safely do this.
10. Control your fall:
Hopefully the above tips will prevent a fall, but if you do slip and fall backwards, try to quickly tuck in your chin to protect the back of your head.
A fall onto an outstretched hand with the elbow straight is a common mechanism of injury for wrist and elbow fractures. Bending your elbows and knees rather than holding them rigid will help to absorb the force of a fall and may minimise injury.
If you do fall, avoid trying to jump straight back up again, as you risk slipping again on the ice and compounding an injury. Be careful and get back up slowly using handrails or other available supports, and/or call for assistance.
Reduce your risk of falling by implementing these tips. If you need help improving your balance or with rehabilitation after suffering a fracture or injury, please call your local Chartered Physiotherapist.
Jenny Branigan is a Chartered Physiotherapist & Owner of Total Physio in Sandyford, Dublin 18. www.totalphysio.ie