Winter sports and slippery sidewalks pose risks to many parts of the body, but hands and wrists in particular take a beating when temperatures plummet and snow and ice accumulate, according to Peter Stein, MD fellowship trained hand and wrist specialist. “The most common upper extremity injuries in the winter months occur when people extend their arms in front of them to break a fall when they slip on the ice or while engaging in a winter sport,” said Dr. Stein, who noted that this is an important reflexive action. Landing on our outstretched hands protects more severe injuries to our head, face, and hips.
Wrist and elbow fractures can result from landing on an outstretched hand during a fall. If this occurs near the growth plate in a child, a wrist brace or cast will allow the bone to heal in 3-4 weeks. In comparison, for adults, fractures generally take about 6-8 weeks. If the fracture is more complicated or significantly displaced out of its normal alignment, then surgical treatment is often required. Similar fractures can occur to the fingers where treatment varies from simple buddy taping to surgical intervention.
One unique injury is quite common when skiing. If the fall occurs while skiing, the skier can suffer a condition known as a “skier’s thumb” if they land with the ski pole still in their hand. The ulnar collateral ligament located at the base of the thumb can get sprained or completely torn. A simple sprain is often managed with a thumb stabilization brace, ice and over the counter anti-inflammatory medication. Complete tears of the ligament typically require surgery to reattach the ligament.
One devastating group of injuries that are completely avoidable are the injuries that occur when using a snow blower. Even if the snow blower is turned off and spark plugs are disconnected, there is still the potential for injury if a hand is placed near the blades.
Dr. Stein said the most important way to minimize the risk for these injuries is through prevention. He advises people of all ages to wear appropriate footwear, use assistive devices, if needed, and practice vigilance to avoid icy patches. Moreover, skiers and snowboarders should refrain from attempting terrain that is above their ability. Wrist guards may also provide additional protection during these activities although serious injuries can still occur when these are worn. Finally, when fatigued, winter athletes should take frequent breaks or call it quits. Under no circumstances should one ever use their hands to remove ice from blades of a snow blower. Always use a piece of wood or the plastic cleaning stick that comes with the machine to remove ice.
When to go to the ER
Dr. Stein noted that many of these injuries can be treated in the office. However, serious injuries such as complicated fractures and deep lacerations may require treatment from a hospital emergency medical team.