8 ways to protect your back from winter threats

A young woman with pain in her lower back.

Tennessee winters don’t typically raise concerns about frostbite or hypothermia. But that doesn’t mean the colder months can’t affect your health. Winter can be a threat to the health of your back. And the cold weather is just part of the problem. There’s also ice and snow to contend with.

WellTuned checked in with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee certified exercise physiologist Tyler Waclawski to find out how you can protect your back and spine during the harsh winter months.

“It can be difficult at times to stay motivated to exercise when the temperature drops,” Tyler says. “But taking care of your overall health and the health of your back is extremely important because your muscles are more vulnerable this time of year.”

Tips for protecting your back in cold weather

Tyler Waclawski: If you already suffer from lower back pain, you may already be extra cautious at all times. That’s an excellent tack to take during the winter, too. But even people who don’t have any existing back injuries or history of low back pain could benefit from being proactive. You don’t want to accidentally injure yourself shoving snow or falling on ice.

Here are ways to help protect your back from injury this winter:

1. Stay active

Tempted to hibernate when it’s cold? Try to resist the urge. Inactivity leads to tightness and stiffness throughout the back. Plus it also weakens your core muscles that help stabilize your spine. Stay active with regular movement and exercises such as walking and strength training.

2. Warm up before you exercise

You never want to jump right into exercising without giving your body a chance to warm up first. Cold muscles are stiff muscles, and they’re more susceptible to injury in colder weather. Try some stretches like forward hinges and leg swings.

3. Don’t push yourself too hard

Overexertion can actually put strain on muscles and ligaments in your lower back. You may wind up with some pain and stiffness if you throw yourself too hard into too much physical activity. That’s especially true when temperatures are low.

4. Be mindful of previous injuries

Research suggests that symptoms of certain chronic conditions like sciatica and some kinds of arthritis worsen when the temperatures dip. Be mindful of any pre-existing conditions or injuries that you have and stop what you’re doing if you start to feel twinges.

5. Dress appropriately for the weather

Dress in layers so you’ll stay warm—and be able to keep your muscles warm and limber so they are less likely to get injured. If you’re going to be out in the snow or rain, make sure you’re wearing water-repellant gear. Wear shoes that have good traction on the soles so you’ll be less likely to slip or slide and fall.

6. Use good shoveling technique

Every year, you hear about the people who wind up in the emergency room from a snow-shoveling-related injury. Don’t be one of them. Use good technique when shoveling snow, which includes bending at the knees to maintain the normal curvature of the back and spine and lifting smaller (and lighter) amounts of snow with each shovelful. Try to avoid twisting or bending at the waist when shoveling and tossing the snow aside. Take breaks regularly to rest and stretch, too.

7. Reconsider those early mornings if you can

If you love to exercise first thing in the morning, get up a few minutes earlier and take that time to loosen up your muscles. This is especially important in the early mornings in winter months when the temperature is colder. However, if you can avoid early-morning snow-shoveling sessions, you might consider that. Some experts caution that your spinal discs may be at greater risk for herniation from bending and twisting after you wake up in the morning.

8. Walk like a penguin

Sidewalks, parking lots and driveways can become slick with ice—and dangerous to walk on. If you slip and fall, you could sustain a serious injury to your back. It might sound silly to suggest that you walk like a penguin, but actually, it’s good advice! Point your feet slightly outward and walk flat-footed. Keep your arms out to the side for balance. Then walk or shuffle slowly ahead.

See your doctor if you develop any problems

Tyler Waclawski: Caution and prevention can make a huge difference. But if you do start to notice any problems, even if you’re being careful, stop and take a break. And if they persist, let your doctor know. They can provide guidance on treating any back pain or other symptoms, as well as more guidance on prevention strategies.

More from Tyler Waclawski on WellTuned.

Jennifer Larson

Jennifer Larson is Nashville-based writer and editor with nearly 20 years of experience. She specializes in health care and family issues.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.