Winter Warning for Seniors – Watch Your Back!

Winter can be a dangerous time for elderly people; there are more chances to fall and overexert. Follow these tips and cautions to stay safe and sound when it’s cold outside, without having to get stuck at home.

Freezing weather can increase the risk of injury for older adults in a variety of ways, from hypothermia to house fires to exertion-induced heart attack. Let’s focus here on accidental spine injury, because beyond the initial pain, back problems can seriously restrict a senior’s mobility, and impair balance and stability. This can severely compromise the person’s desire to live independently.

Types of non-traumatic spine injury

Common non-traumatic back injuries among elderly people include herniated disc – spinal discs grow less supple with age and the bones that they protect can grow more brittle (the medical term is osteoporosis). A sideways fall can cause a displacement of the disc and spinal bone, and a ‘sit-down’ fall can result in a compression fracture of bones of the lower back. Any of these conditions can cause a lot of pain in a hurry. Even if surgery is not required, the healing and rehabilitation can be slow and painful.

Here are some of the many ways elderly people can put themselves at risk of spine injury in the winter:

Clearing Snow and Ice

For older people who choose to shovel, it’s important to take some precautions. Your heart works double time to keep you warm in freezing conditions, and strenuous activities like shoveling can cause trouble, especially in those who have heart disease. If you have osteoporosis (thin bones, a condition that advances with age), shoveling can induce small fractures, and balance problems on top of back pain can make it more likely you’ll take a fall. It’s best for seniors to discuss outdoor exertion like snow shoveling with a medical professional, so you’ll know whether you might worsen an ongoing health condition. If you must shovel, dress in light layers, wear slip-resistant footwear and gloves, and take plenty of rest and water breaks.

It’s So Easy to Slip

Icy and snowy conditions can make it much more likely you’ll slip, fall and hurt yourself in a way that causes long-term trouble. When venturing out in frozen weather, make sure steps and sidewalks are clear. Remember that melted ice and snow can freeze into hard-to-see black ice as the sun sets and temperatures drop. Clear and salt your walkways, or hire someone to do it. Non-slip boots are for walking as well as shoveling. If you use a cane, replace the rubber tip if it’s worn out, or even invest in an ice pick attachment for the end.

Car Safety

Elders over 65 have more car accidents per driver mile than members of nearly all age groups. Spine injuries are all too common in car accidents, as well. To help avoid being a statistic, take precautions before, during and after driving in winter conditions.

  • Check tires and wiper blades, and fill the windshield washer tank with freeze-proof cleaner.
  • Remember your cell phone when you drive in bad weather, and always let someone know where you are going and when you should be expected back. You don’t want to get stuck, and you definitely don’t want to get out of your car to walk for help.
  • Avoid icy roads, and slow down on overpasses or bridges that could be frozen.  Often bigger roads are cleared of snow more quickly and more thoroughly than smaller roads.
  • Stock your car with basic emergency supplies including blankets, first aid kit, flashlight, battery jumpers and a pair of gloves.
  • In the car trunk, a sack of de-icing salt and a trowel might help get you off a slippery spot.

Seniors don’t need to hibernate when it’s cold or icy outside, but the precautions described here, and other sensible steps, can help keep them safe to enjoy more of warmer seasons to come.