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An Echo Press Editorial: Winter injuries take a toll

By the Echo Press Editorial Board

Do you know someone who has taken a fall this winter?

Chances are, you do.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 3 million older people – those 65 and older – fall. In fact, more than one out of four older people fall each year, but less than half tell their doctor. Falling once doubles your chances of falling again, the CDC says.

And we’re not talking about a small fall that results in a minor bump or bruise. One out of five falls causes a serious injury such as broken bones or a head injury, according to the CDC. Falls are the most common cause of traumatic brain injuries.

There’s an economic impact as well. In 2015, the total medical costs for falls totaled more than $50 billion. Medicare and Medicaid shouldered 75% of these costs, the CDC said.

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University of Minnesota Medical School expert Mahmood Gharib was interviewed by the university for its “Talking with the U of M” newsletter and he shared insights worth considering during this slippery, icy time of year. Here are highlights:

Q: What injuries are most commonly seen during the winter?

Dr. Gharib: A variety of injuries can occur during the winter. If someone slips or falls on icy surfaces, an injury can range from spine and musculoskeletal injuries – such as sprains and broken bones – to head/brain injuries – such as a concussion. Injuries also commonly occur during winter sports activities. Other injuries can be related to cold-weather conditions such as frostbite or hypothermia.

Q: Are spinal and head injuries a serious injury?

Dr. Gharib: Spinal and head injuries can be very serious. Anyone who has significant trauma to the head and spine should seek medical evaluation. These types of injuries may not always appear immediately obvious; however, the time between injury and treatment could help limit the severity and extent of damage.

Q: What prevention measures should individuals take when shoveling or using sidewalks?

Dr. Gharib: Be mindful of slippery or icy surfaces that may be difficult to see. Prior to shoveling, dress appropriately, wear multiple layers for warmth and use appropriate footwear to limit slipping. A few gentle stretching techniques can get your body prepared for the hard work of shoveling. Use an ergonomic shovel, typically made of lightweight, durable metals or plastic to reduce stress on your back. Adjustable handle lengths can also provide the best fit.

Shovel often and early during snow falls instead of waiting for snow to accumulate. Pace yourself when shoveling. While heavy, wet snow may be fun to play in, it can create more challenges and strain on your back, so use proper lifting techniques: bend at the hips and knees, push instead of pull, and limit excessive lifting.

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Q: What extra safety measures should people take when sledding, skiing or snowboarding?

Dr. Gharib: These activities should be done in appropriate and designated areas. Wear protective gear, including helmets. Helmets designated with MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system) may provide additional protection. Avoid areas close to roads, fences or densely populated trees. Be mindful of others nearby – always sled feet first and make sure children are accompanied by adults.

Q: If someone has a back or head injury, what should they expect for the recovery process?

Dr. Gharib: Back and head injuries can vary widely in severity. While most back injuries typically resolve within a few days or weeks, seek medical attention if you experience:

  • Any new or worsening weakness.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Bowel and bladder changes.
  • Pain that does not respond to relative rest and some over-the-counter medications.

It is always best to consult with a physician with any type of head injury.
The bottom line: Be careful out there. A fall takes only a split second but you could end up in the hospital for a long recovery.

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