Avoiding Back Pain this Fall and Winter Season

Avoid Back pain this yearAs the seasons change and summer turns to fall, the temperature drops, but your chances of developing acute back pain may go up.  This is likely due to several reasons. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help prevent it from happening to you. 

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical care. Typically, the majority of back pain flairs are acute and self-limiting.  The most common type of acute back pain is a lumbar strain, which is a muscle strain of your low back muscles.  These muscles are strong and have many attachments to your spine and pelvis. Therefore when they are injured the pain can be severe and debilitating. 

Below are some common reasons people experience acute low back pain in the fall and winter seasons, along with tips you can try to avoid unnecessary pain.

Bending and Twisting Activities

As the temperature drops, the leaves will change color and begin to fall to the ground.  Then, the winter will come and snow will fall.  The leaves will need to be raked and the snow shoveled.  These two activities involve repetitive bending and twisting, and can be painful to your low back.  They are physically demanding activities, and can easily lead to sprains or strains of your low back muscles. 

Some helpful tips to avoid low back pain during shoveling or raking include:

  1. Be sure and warm up your muscles:  The weather will be cold and your muscles will likely be stiff. Warming up, by stretching and light lifting, before heading outside can improve your performance and decrease the chance of a strain.
  2. Pace yourself: Shoveling snow and raking leaves can be both exhausting and difficult.  These activities are prone to exacerbate back pain, and should be done with frequent breaks as necessary.
  3. Proper form: Always lift with your legs and not your back.  Bend at your knees when lifting, and avoid bending and twisting as much as possible. 
  4. Use the right tools: Lightweight and long handled tools can decrease the strain felt on your body.  Try using a plastic shovel instead of a metal one.  A wheelbarrow or cart can also be helpful.
  5. Wear the right gear: Proper footwear and gloves are essential.  Comfortable and sturdy outerwear can provide support and stability while working outside. 

Avoid Slips and Falls

Cold temperatures and snow on the ground can lead to slick sidewalks and ice covered surfaces.  Acute injuries from slips and falls can range from simple sprains to fractures of the spine and tailbone.  The force of your body falling onto the ice covered ground can be significant.  If you have a fall with acute back pain you should quickly call and see a spine physician to rule out spine fracture or neurologic injury. It is especially important to see your doctor if you develop radiating leg pain or numbness anywhere below the waist.  Hopefully a fall will be nothing more than a bruise to your ego and backside, but it is important to be sure there is no underlying structural damage.

Tips to avoid slips and falls include:

  1. Wear proper footwear:  A rubber soled shoe in good condition is a must.  It can provide the traction and support needed on snow and ice covered surfaces.
  2. Watch where you are going: It sounds simple, but with everyone’s eyes glued to their smartphone, it’s no wonder people fall from not looking where they are going.
  3. Be careful: Do not take for granted the fact that even freshly fallen snow can have a layer of ice hidden beneath the surface.

Lack of Exercise

For many adults the fall and winter are the season of football on the couch and holidays that include a lot of eating and drinking.  These are two of several reasons people stop exercising in the fall and winter. This season make it a priority to keep up the summer workout regimen you have been working so hard on.

 The weather is going to get cold, and as we spend more time indoors, it leads to less overall activity.  Gone will be the summer sports, walks, and outdoor activities we love.  The goal is to replace them with other activities we can do indoors, such as joining a gym or walking around the mall.  It has been shown that less exercise leaves your body vulnerable to acute low back pain. 

Tips for avoiding lack of exercise.

  1. Maintain a healthy home exercise program to strengthen your back.
  2. Spend less time on the couch watching TV and football. Take commercial breaks to stand up and stretch or do some home exercises.
  3. Join the local community gym or walk at the mall. You need somewhere bigger than your house to really get the amount of exercise you need.  Utilize public places and community centers for the activity programs they offer.
  4. Try and avoid overeating during the holidays. It is easier said than done, but eat in moderation to avoid excessive weight gain.  Extra weight puts extra stress on the body and can certainly lead to episodes of acute back pain.

Cold Weather

Every year I see an increase in pain complaints in my office as the weather changes. The cold air and moisture along with the drop in barometric pressure can have significant effects on joints and muscles of the entire body.  Many patients complain of joint pain as the temperature drops, but there are simple ways to try and avoid this.

  1. Dress warm.  When it’s cold outside dress warm and wear layers.  You can always remove some articles of clothing if you get too warm.  Many people underdress and leave themselves vulnerable.  Avoid this common mistake by wearing layers of clothing that will keep you warm in these cold conditions.
  2. Try a heating pad on sensitive areas. The local heat can be therapeutic to the area.
  3. Stretch and Keep Muscles Warm. Before any outdoor or strenuous activity be sure and stretch and warm up your muscles before using them.  Keeping limber can reduce pressure on muscle tendons and ligaments.

If you do have pain this fall and winter, there are things you can do:

  1. Mild Pain: For mild pain you can try an over the counter anti-inflammatory like Alleve or Advil. Use as directed, take these medications with food, and avoid them if you have chronic kidney disease or peptic ulcer disease.  Also for mild pain, employ rest and continue your home exercise program as tolerated.
  2. Moderate to Severe pain. If you are experiencing moderate to severe pain or if you had a traumatic fall, then it is time to see a health care provider.   At this point, it is necessary to seek out a professional to help give you a diagnosis you and setup an appropriate patient specific treatment plan.

Conclusion

Overall, this fall and winter there are several strategies you can take to avoid having an episode of acute low back pain.  Even though back pain is a common complaint this time of year, these tips can be useful in helping you avoid being in pain. 

About the Author

Michael A. Chioffe, M.D.

Michael A. Chioffe, M.D.Michael A. Chioffe, M.D is fellowship trained orthopedic spine surgeon based in Park Ridge, IL. He has a B.S in Chemistry and Microbiology from the University of Florida. He completed his medical school training at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. He completed his spine surgery fellowship at Northwestern University.View all posts by Michael A. Chioffe, M.D. →