By Heather Kaufman, DPM, FACFAS
It is that time of the year again. The holidays are approaching, temperatures are dropping, days are getting shorter and the snow is falling. And while fresh snow is certainly beautiful to look at (who doesn’t enjoy receiving a greeting card depicting snow covered trees and rooftops?), underneath that snow may be lurking a hazardous layer of ice.
Slip and fall injuries – including slips on ice – are the third leading cause of unintentional deaths across all age groups, and the number one leading cause of unintentional deaths in persons age 65 and older, according to the National Safety Council. Of the forty-two ICD-10 (diagnosis) codes addressing “slipping, tripping and stumbling”, three are specific to “fall due to ice and snow”.
Knowing that ice is a major risk factor for injuries (including severe or life-threatening injuries), what should you do to protect yourself and mitigate the risks when you walk outside on potentially icy surfaces? The answer starts before you even leave your home.
Be prepared. Wear warm, layered clothing with good visibility. Brightly colored hats or gloves will improve your visibility to those around you if you do fall, including approaching cars. Wear sunglasses to reduce reflective glare, thereby improving your ability to identify and avoid icy spots.
Wear shoes that are not only warm, but that have good traction. Soft, rubber, knobby soles help to improve grip on icy surfaces. You may even want to consider shoes that come equipped with studs built in, such as Icebug® shoes. Or, you can purchase various types of removable ice cleats (Yaktrax® Walkers is one example) that attach to the outer soles of your shoes and help to grip the ice. These are a good option as they can be removed once you are safely indoors. Also, ladies, reserve the high heels for indoor use only!
Regardless of what you choose to wear, the key to successfully walking on ice is this: Think like a penguin! Walk with a slight forward bend, keeping your center of gravity over your front leg. Walk with shorter (even shuffling) strides, landing your foot squarely on the ground with each step. Keep your hands out of your pockets, extend your arms slightly away from your body, and widen the distance between your feet. This will help you to maintain a wider, more balanced and more stable base for walking.
When faced with stairs, hold on to the railings whenever possible and take your time. Ascend or descend the stairs one step at a time, even landing both feet on each step before proceeding to the next. And always look at each step before planting your feet so that you can identify and avoid an icy spot.
When entering or exiting your car, use it for stability until you have both feet square on the ground and feel balanced and stable. And be careful when entering or exiting a building. Often ice builds up just outside of the front door making this a prime place to slip and fall.
Always be observant of your surroundings. Don’t just look down at the ground, look up as well, particularly if you are walking under tree limbs, power lines, or buildings with wide eaves – any place where icicles can form, or snow can pile up and fall on you. Also, observe the people around you. Are you noticing certain areas where multiple people are slipping or falling? This is a good indicator that the area is icy, and you should try to avoid it yourself. Finally, if you have a choice between walking on ice versus walking on snow, go for the snow. It provides more traction than the ice and is a much softer surface to land on. Just remember that a sheet of ice could be below fresh fallen snow.
If you do lose your balance and feel yourself falling, tuck and roll. Curl into a ball, avoid extending out your hands and arms, protect your head, and try to fall on a fleshier area of your body to cushion the blow.
Have a fun – and safe – winter!
Dr. Kaufman is a Board Certified podiatric physician and the owner of Anchorage Foot & Ankle Clinic, LLC.