Cold Weather Injuries

It’s a common occurrence during the cold weather season; people who have existing injuries, or sustain a new one, seem to feel more pain this time of year. The effects of cold weather are especially noticeable for anyone who has metal inside them, due to a hip replacement or other sort of surgery. For hundreds of years, this has been an understood phenomenon, but minimal scientific evidence has been offered to explain it.

Why Does the Cold Make My Injuries Hurt More?

A lot of this can be attributed to drops in atmospheric pressure. The general conclusion from many scientists is that this drop translates to a tensing of the muscles, which can constrict nerves and cause pain. If the pressure outside your body drops, the pressure inside your body expands, such as the gasses in the fluid surrounding your joints and tendons. This is why a metal hip can hurt more in the cold, or why a new injury, such as injuring your back while shoveling, seems to feel worse than it might otherwise.

Common Cold Weather Injuries

Cold weather injuries can oftentimes be painful and sometimes even fatal. If you are hiking, fishing or simply sledding in the snow, help might be far away. This is why it’s crucial to recognize symptoms, understand treatment if an injury occurs and to know how to prevent one from happening.

  • The most common is frostbite, which varies in severity depending on length of exposure, and most often occurs in the fingers, toes or the face. This is because when the body is cold, it pumps more blood to the heart and essentially ignores the extremities. Symptoms of frostbite include tingling or burning sensation, numbness, and itching. Frostbite is a serious condition which, if left untreated, can result in amputation.
  • Hypothermia can also happen due to prolonged exposure to cold weather, and is defined as the body temperature falling below 95 degrees. Symptoms usually include shivering, slurred speech and sleepiness. Hypothermia can be deadly so if a person starts to present these symptoms, you’ll want to warm them up as gradually, but as quickly as possible (we’ll explain this below).
  • Immersion foot, or trench foot, can happen even if the temperatures aren’t especially cold. If you have been standing on damp and cool ground for long periods of time without proper footwear, your feet can develop similar symptoms to frostbite. In extreme cases, gangrene or necrosis can set in and the foot may have to be amputated.
  • Snow blindness or sunburn are quite common as well, mainly because when it’s cold and/or cloudy, people don’t think to apply sunscreen or wear sunglasses. Snow blindness happens when the eyes have become affected by the UV light reflecting off the snow. If the light starts to be painful or your eyes are twitching, you’ll want to get inside to a darker room.

These are painful and potentially fatal cold weather injuries that can lead to lasting health problems and high medical bills. Knowing how to keep the injury from happening in the first place will greatly decrease your odds of these things ever happening to you.

Prevention of Cold Weather Injuries

No one wants to lose any fingers or toes, and dressing appropriately can take away much of the worry of frostbite or hypothermia. A helpful acronym for cold-weather clothing is C.O.L.D, which stands for:

  • Keep it Clean
  • Avoid Overheating
  • Wear Loose and Layered clothing
  • Dry

Dry is perhaps the most important part of this. If your clothing and socks are dry, then hypothermia and trench foot can be prevented. If you are going on a camping trip (or to a music festival) you’ll want to bring extra socks and a change of clothes. This will help keep your feet healthy and will keep your core temperature from dropping to an unhealthy level.

Other helpful tips include paying attention to the weather; in cold conditions, the air temperature is much less harmful than the windchill, which can quicken the onset of frostbite. You should try to avoid cotton clothing, as it retains moisture. If you are immersing yourself in the elements for an extending period of time, having paper towels on hand to wipe dry the inside of your boots is another way to keep your toes warm.

Treatment of Cold Weather Injuries

If the situation should arise, knowing how to treat yours or your friend’s cold weather injury can prevent it from becoming worse. Hypothermia can perhaps be the worst of them, especially if you are in a remote location.

Hypothermia must be treated delicately; if the heart warms back up too fast, it can send the person into cardiac arrest. If it’s possible to replace wet clothing with dry ones, that should be your first move. Using your body heat to warm theirs is usually done as well, but this must be skin-to-skin contact. Doing this inside a sleeping bag, or wrapping an electric blanket around them is good if it’s available. If getting them inside is an option, do so as quickly as you can. Focus on warming the center of the body. It should be noted that if you are stranded and miles away from help, do not eat snow in an effort to stay hydrated. This will speed up the onset of hypothermia.

Frostbite is usually treated with immersion in warm water, between 98-104 degrees. Exposure to excessive heat is detrimental, and you should not rub the affected area. You can wrap the area with a warm blanket or tuck the area under your armpit in an effort to warm it. If the frostbite is deep, or if the potential for refreezing is present, then thawing is best avoided, and medical attention should be sought as soon as possible. As the area re-warms, a painful burning sensation, or the area turning purple or blue is common.

Overall, being prepared is the best way to prevent and treat cold weather injuries. Not only can your appendages be saved, but your life may be as well.

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