A person wears their snow boots as they walk through the snow outside.
If you’re likely to encounter snowy parking lots or icy sidewalks, wear proper footwear. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Injuries from slips and falls can occur year-round, but they’re more prevalent when snow and ice blanket the landscape.

Spectrum Health Orthopedic Urgent Care physician assistant Brian Lee has seen his share of patients suffer slip and fall injuries—and he has some tips to help you make it through winter more safely.

A big key? Be mindful of your environment.

“In spring and summer people get hurt due to activities,” Lee said. “They trip over something while participating in an outdoor sport or while playing with the kids or grandkids. In the winter, it’s the weather that usually is the culprit.”

Age matters

The severity of fall injuries can vary from simple bruises and sprains to broken bones.

The most common injuries involve damage to the extremities—ankles, wrists and shoulders. Injuries to the hips and head can happen, too, Lee said.

Age is often a factor in the severity and type of injury. Older individuals seem to suffer more wrist, shoulder and hip injuries.

“The reason is because reaction time is reduced with age,” Lee said. “And so older people land on those body areas harder.”

A skilled health care team member will listen carefully to a patient explain how an injury happened, as it can provide important information that uncovers the extent of the problem. The evaluation process is sometimes an act of discovery because some injuries aren’t so obvious.

“Pain is very difficult to verbally express and it’s difficult to remember what actually happened because the injuries occurred so suddenly,” Lee said.

Not all injuries are immediately visible.

Back injuries are a prime example, Lee said. Your back may seem fine after a fall, but it can actually sustain damage that doesn’t present itself as pain until later.

High-risk conditions

Everyone should be cautious when navigating icy sidewalks and driveways in the winter. But people with preexisting medical conditions need to take extra care.

A person taking blood thinners should not take any chances if they fall and hit their head, Lee said. They should go right to the nearest emergency department, even if they think they weren’t injured. A health team member will check for internal cranial bleeding.

People who have diabetes should exercise caution, too, because they can experience peripheral neuropathy. This is where nerves don’t function as well as they used to. If they’re injured in a fall, they may not feel any real pain or even know something is wrong.

It’s best for patients with diabetes to visit a doctor if they’ve experienced a fall.

Some injury signs to watch for? Ankle swelling and foot bruising.

“Never underestimate a fall,” Lee said. “People slip, fall and they don’t think anything of it and go about their day—only to find out later they had a devastating injury.”

Even bone fractures or head trauma can go unnoticed.

Generally, this precautionary advice applies to everyone. Fractures can be treated more conservatively and heal faster if they’re caught early.

Exercise for agility

At-home exercises can lessen the chances of sustaining a severe injury in a fall, Lee said.

Simple stretching and movement exercises are helpful. Concentrate on anything that helps the ankles, hips and knees.

“Stretching is important because people with diminished mobility are less likely to catch themselves and more likely to hurt themselves in a fall,” Lee said.

Strength-training is beneficial, too, because it promotes good mobility.

The power of prevention

Preventing a slip and fall is obviously the best way to avoid getting hurt.

Lee urges people to engage the three points of contact.

The first two points? Your feet. Wear proper footwear that offers you excellent traction and ankle support.

The third point of contact is anything that can help you maintain your balance—a handrail, a fence, even a parked car near an area that looks precarious because of ice, snow or uneven terrain.

Any stable object can serve to improve stability.

Also, take your time. Don’t rush when walking outdoors, particularly in the winter. Always take a moment to examine an area before venturing out.

Look carefully for ice—some surfaces can be deceptive. You should be particularly aware of the difference between dry pavement and dark pavement, often known as black ice, Lee said.

If it’s wet or looks wet, avoid the area.

It’s safer to walk on snow as opposed to shoveled areas or snow that has been packed down. Just make sure you have good traction and proper footwear.

And be vigilant.

“The dangers of the winter have no respect for age,” Lee said. “Anyone can be a victim.”

Be as diligent as possible in choosing your path.

“Take your time, negotiate and study what could be a slippery area,” he said. “Paying attention to your environment is less expensive and less painful than being treated or seen by a medical provider.”