The winter months bring holiday joy…and potentially, holiday-related pain. Putting up decorations, traveling cross-country, partying with family and friends, whipping up elaborate meals, frolicking in (or taming) the snow—all those time-honored traditions can wreak havoc on your body if you’re not careful. The good news: Most winter injuries are so common that they’re easily avoidable with a few precautions. The Remedy asked doctors nationwide to reveal the holiday injuries they see most often, and how you can ensure this season is memorable for just the right reasons.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 15,000 injuries—or 240 a day during November and December—are related to holiday decorating. The body part that bears the brunt of all that reaching, twisting and hauling: Your back. “All the extra lifting and decorating can come with a painful price, if folks aren’t careful,” says Richard Barnes, clinic director of RET Physical Therapy Group in Redmond, Washington. “Our PT clinics fill up every year at this time with folks looking for relief from holiday-induced back pain, but there are also things people can do ahead of time to avoid common holiday injuries.”
The Remedy Rx: Barnes advises prepping for the season with core work (such as forearm planks, glute bridges and tabletop presses). That’ll help strengthen your core and increase the amount of weight your back can comfortably carry. Finish up by stretching your back (lie on your back and bring your knees to your stomach for 30 seconds) and legs (bend over and try to touch the floor, with your head tucked as close to your body as possible for 15 seconds).
Whether you’re hefting boxes, shopping bags, holiday trees or suitcases, the winter months bring tons of opportunities for lifting-related injuries—they’re so common Barnes and his colleagues have dubbed the phenomenon “Santa Strain.”
The Remedy Rx: Lift items with your feet shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other. Squat and lift with your legs—not your back. Keep the load close to your body. “Twenty pounds held at arm’s length exerts as much force as 50 pounds held close to your body,” says Barnes. When you put the load down, squat; don’t bend your back. Holiday trees should always be carried by at least two people.
Shoveling snow can lead to a range of injuries, from an aching back to a heart attack. The latter is a serious phenomenon: According to Harvard Medical School, pushing a shovel or heavy snow blower is a known trigger for heart attack. Cold weather can boost blood pressure, interrupting blood flow to the heart, and make blood more to clot. More than 100 fatal heart attacks occur each year as a result.
The Remedy Rx: If you have, or are at high risk for, heart disease, avoid shoveling snow. A 2017 study by the US Nationwide Children’s Hospital went further, saying that snow shoveling is too dangerous for anyone over age 55 to attempt. This year, you might want to offer a teenage relative or neighbor cocoa and some pocket money to keep your driveway clear.
From stringing Christmas lights to arranging indoor decorations and topping the Christmas tree, the winter months are when ladders come out—raising the risk of falls.
The Remedy Rx: Make sure ladders are on a steady, level surface that is not cluttered with debris. When decorating low and medium heights, opt for a step stool or utility ladder. Avoid the top two rungs if using an extension ladder for outdoor decorating. “And remember the 1:4 rule,” says Barnes. “The bottom of the ladder should be one foot away from the wall for every four feet the ladder rises.”
“Foot pain is very common this time of year,” says Bruce Pinker, DPM, AACFAS, FAPWCA, DABPM, a board-certified podiatrist with Progressive Foot Care in New York. “Women suffer considerably during the holidays due to the wearing of high heels or narrow-toed footwear for events and parties. Often, it leads to pain at the ball of the foot from metatarsalgia or bursitis, and ankle sprains can occur due to instability on high heels.”
The Remedy Rx: “The best way to avoid the foot discomfort and injuries is to wear more sensible shoes—heels no higher than two-and-a-half inches,” says Pinker. “Avoid narrow-toed footwear, and utilize a liner or padded insert inside shoes to increase comfort.” If you do suffer an injury, massaging and icing can help. Wrap a sprain with an ACE bandage. If the pain doesn’t relent, a podiatrist can offer aid via physical therapy, custom-made orthotics or cortisone injections.
“A common complaint during holiday season is depression about a loved one who may have passed away,” says Amber Robins, MD, a board-certified family medicine doctor with Your Doctors Online. “As family and friends come together, feelings of loss may also arise. Wintertime also can be a time of isolation as many people stay at home due to it being colder outside. This can lead to depression as well.”
The Remedy Rx: Check in with friends and family to chat about how they’re really doing. And be alert to the signs of depression in them — and yourself. A chronic low mood, feelings of hopelessness, or disinterest in previously enjoyed activities could mean it’s time to check in with a healthcare provider for some relief.
“It’s important to keep safety in mind, especially for children, during the holidays,” says Cherilyn Cecchini, MD, a board-certified pediatrician with Your Doctors Online. “Although holiday-specific injuries, such as burns from open flames or hot food dishes, are common, it’s important to remember that general ‘everyday’ injuries also happen frequently during the holiday season.”
The Remedy Rx: “If you’re visiting another home with children, check areas that may pose danger, such as electrical outlets or stairs, and safeguard these,” says Cecchini. “Be sure that medications are stored in a safe place, outside of children’s reach. Encourage prompt cleaning, especially if adults are drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco products, in order to prevent children from getting into these substances.”
“Travel across time zones, late hours, and poor driving conditions all contribute to increased risk of motor vehicle accidents or any accidents from using machinery, from a knife or ax on up,” says emergency medicine physician Paul Weinberg, MD.
The Remedy Rx: Gift yourself plenty of sleep this holiday season. If you travel, give yourself time to rest before and after reaching your destination. If you’re feeling fatigued, don’t undertake risky or physical activities until you’re feeling totally alert.
“For some families, playing football is just as much as a tradition as turkey and cranberry sauce in the shape of a can (my personal favorite),” says Michael Richardson, MD, of One Medical in Boston. “With sports come sports injuries, so be sure to stretch and play responsibly. A common injury I see are sprained ankles.”
The Remedy Rx: “If you roll your ankle, it’s best to stop playing, wrap your ankle in an ACE bandage, ice it, elevate it, and take some ibuprofen for pain,” says Richardson. “You can likely wait a bit to see a healthcare professional, but if you are unable to bear weight on the ankle or have point tenderness on the bone, you may have fractured your ankle and should see a healthcare professional ASAP.”
“After a marathon of delicious dishes and desserts, the most common complaint I hear is indigestion,” says Richardson. “This can be a burning or pressure-like sensation in your stomach or chest, sometimes accompanied by nausea.”
The Remedy Rx: “Try some tea or flat soda with ginger to settle your stomach,” advises Richardson. “If you need a medication, go with famotidine (Pepcid) as it is fast-acting and should settle your stomach acid relatively quickly — omeprazole (or Prilosec) takes a few days to work.” Don’t ignore chest pain that worsens or is accompanied by shortness of breath, jaw pain, arm pain, or an overall sense of fatigue; that could signify a heart attack and warrants immediate medical attention.
“Holidays can be a great time to unwind, but for some, seeing family again can bring new stress and worsen your mood,” says Robertson. “It’s good to have a game plan before arriving at your family members’ home, in case a stress-provoking event happens.”
The Remedy Rx: “If you ever get to a point where you need a break from your family, go for a walk or run an errand,” says Robertson. “A little air may be all you need to get back in the holiday spirit.”
“Some of the holiday’s favorite traditional treats—like nuts, hard candies, caramels and toffees and crusty breads such as biscotti and bruschetta—can cause teeth, fillings, crowns, and even dentures, to crack and break,” says Mike Golpa, DDS, a dentist with G4 by Golpa in Las Vegas. “Crunching the harder treats is quite obvious, but many don’t think of the softer, stickier treats as potential hazards. The danger comes when you remove the sticky goodness that has lodged itself on and between your teeth. Pulling it away can actually cause damage to teeth and dental placements.”
The Remedy Rx: “Your best bet to get through the holidays without an emergency visit to the dentist’s office is to avoid these foods, or at least take care when eating them to chew on both sides of your mouth and not all in the same place,” says Golpa.
“Kitchen accidents are all too common” during the holidays, says Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles with SkinSafe Dermatology and Skin Care. “Cooking for family and friends is fun, but time constraints, large quantities, limited kitchen space, and using gadgets that you don’t normally use can increase your risk for accidentally slicing, chopping, grating and/or burning fingers.”
The Remedy Rx: Shainhouse advises holding ingredients with your hand in a “claw” shape when chopping. “That will protect your fingertips, and the smooth surface of your dorsal fingers can act as a guide for the knife,” she says. Hold anything you’re slicing with a mandolin with a fork or pronged tool, and wear a glove when using a grater.
Bundling up is serious business—skin exposed to cold and snow can develop injury from its surface to deeper structures like fat, muscles and nerves. “It mostly involves exposed areas, such as nose, lips, ears, cheeks and chin, but can affect fingers and toes, too,” says Shainhouse. “The damage can occur over minutes to hours of cold exposure. Pain can last for months, and if the tissue is too severely damaged, it can require amputation.”
The Remedy Rx: “Cover as much of your exposed skin as possible when going outdoors in freezing cold weather, and wear layers,” says Shainhouse. “Stay dry and remove wet clothing as soon as possible.” Avoid nicotine and alcohol when going out in the cold; nicotine constricts blood vessels, while alcohol dilates them. Both can worsen frostbite.
“Many of my patients think dehydration can only occur in the summertime. However, it’s quite common in the winter as well when working outdoors raking leaves, shoveling or decorating,” says Tim Mynes, MD, area medical director of MedExpress Urgent Care. “We tend to bundle up before heading outside where it’s cold, but we forget to remove clothing when we start to warm up and get moving.”
The Remedy Rx: “I always recommend wearing light layers that can be removed to avoid overheating,” says Mynes. “And even though you might not feel thirsty when you’re outside this winter, always take a water bottle with you to make sure you stay hydrated.”
“While candles and lights are a fixture of holiday decorations, it’s important to put safety first, as improper use can cause not only burns and electrical shocks but also fire hazards,” says Mynes.
The Remedy Rx: “First, when stringing lights outside or around your house, make sure you’re using indoor lights for inside and outdoor lights for outside. It seems obvious, but it’s an easy mix-up,” says Mynes. “Before stringing any lights at all, do a thorough check of all strings and wires that have been sitting in storage since last winter—sometimes they may become damaged and could become a potential fire hazard.” Extinguish any candles before you leave a room.
“Around the holidays, people often eat more than they’re used to, as well as foods they’re not accustomed to, specifically foods with higher fat and salt content,” says Galit Sacajiu, MD, MPH, at Elitra Health in New York City. “This can be especially dangerous for people with diabetes, hypertension, or congestive heart failure.”
The Remedy: “One way to help mitigate the effects of overeating is to take a walk, either before or after the meal,” says Sacajiu. “Individuals should also increase their fluid intake to offset the effects of high salt content foods. When enjoying your holiday meals, make sure to look for any first signs of symptoms, and immediately reach out to your healthcare provider who may need to adjust your medications in the short term.”
“Snowblower injuries are common during the holiday season. These can be as simple as small cuts ranging up to finger amputations,” says Kate Eisenberg, MD, a family physician and epidemiologist in Rochester, New York.
The Remedy Rx: “The most important thing for prevention is avoid putting your hands near the blade, and always use a stick or other tool to clear clogged snow,” says Eisenberg. “It’s also important not to drink alcohol while using your snowblower!”
In the winter months, alcohol flows more freely, and tipsy injuries stack up. “Around the holidays, we get people coming into my office for getting too drunk at holiday parties and falling—yes, this is a real thing!” says Dr. Kellen Scantlebury, DPT, CSCS, of Fit Club NY in New York City. “We’ve treated patients with fractured wrists and with fractured ankles from falling and stepping off curbs while being inebriated following their holiday party.”
The Remedy Rx: Know when to say when, especially when you’re walking on snow and ice.
“Many people have family traditions to go skiing or snowboarding during the holidays,” says Scantlebury. “Many times, especially with skiing, we end up treating patients who have torn their ACL. This typically happens with falls, and we see this with our more experienced skiers.”
The Remedy Rx: With ACL tears, surgery is usually needed to provide a full recovery, followed by physical therapy. Scantlebury recommends a few exercises that can strengthen your hips to reduce your chance of ACL injury, including lateral band walks, bridges with a band around the knees, and lateral ski jumps. If you’re a beginning skier, wear proper equipment and take lessons before hitting the slopes.
“The most common ‘injury’ I see around the holidays is really just people falling ill due to something called the Let-Down Effect,” says Anita Wang, MD, an emergency medicine and integrative physician in Laguna Beach, California. “This occurs when the body produces an immune response—like we get sick or experience some type of headache or flare-up—just after a stressful event has subsided. For example, maybe you finished hosting Thanksgiving, stayed up all night wrapping presents, or just finished a trip to the mall for last-minute gift buying. Our bodies often hold up quite well under stress, until we finally relax and stop to recover. The Let-Down Effect is the equivalent of going from 100mph to a dead stop in a car. It’s not good for your car, and it’s not good for your body.”
The Remedy Rx: “We typically crash on the couch and do nothing days after our big holiday event has passed, and this is often when the trouble strikes, whether it is illness, inflammation, or sensitivity reaction,” says Wang. “By gradually lowering the stress, we help our bodies transition to a new balance.” This year, instead of going from holiday chaos to instant couch potato, “Make sure you get 30 minutes of rigorous physical or mental activity—even a brisk walk—in the days following to ease your body back into a comfortable pace of life,” she advises. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 70 Things You Should Never Do For Your Health.