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How to Avoid Injury This Winter

You’re rushing to work, juggling your belongings. You slip. Your body goes one way, your foot the other. When you recover, you feel pain in your ankle.

“Ankle injuries are exceedingly common in the Midwest during winter months due to slippery conditions,” says Gregory P. Witkowski, MD, orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. “They occur consistently among all age groups, and even a simple slip on ice can necessitate surgery.”

While widespread, ankle injuries vary in severity from sprains to fractures that often require surgery. People with osteoporosis have an increased risk of sustaining ankle and other orthopaedic injuries, such as hip fractures, in winter.

“Many ankle fractures can be treated non-surgically with a walking or fracture boot, as long as the bones are in an acceptable position,” says Dr. Witkowski. “Walking boots allow patients to work on range of motion and prevent their muscles from atrophying and weakening.”

Pain and swelling will occur in sprains and fractures alike, but inability to bear weight on an injured ankle may indicate a fracture. Like snowflakes, all ankle injuries are different. Because of this, X-rays are crucial for diagnosis.

If surgery is necessary, Dr. Witkowski says recovery typically involves being off the injured ankle for about six to eight weeks. Physical therapy to regain ankle mobility and strength is usually necessary after the fracture has healed. Recovery and treatment depend on the severity and nature of the ankle fracture. Lingering effects of ankle surgery can include joint stiffness and weakness, and an increased risk of developing arthritis. Physical therapy can help minimize these effects.

You can’t control the weather, but you can take precautions to help avoid an ankle injury this winter:

  • Wear appropriate footwear. When you’re running out to get the mail, boots with treads can be the difference between slip and grip. Boots with ankle support can also help.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and terrain. Even in snow boots, it’s smart to avoid areas that haven’t been cleared or salted during severe winter weather.
  • Take your time. Allot more time for your commute, your walk with your dog, or your trip to the grocery store. Tread slowly and carefully through icy areas.
  • Choose caution. If you have difficulty navigating snow and ice, avoid situations where your orthopaedic wellbeing could be compromised. Enlist the help of a friend, family member or neighbor for outdoor tasks, like shoveling your driveway.
  • Stay safe on the slopes. Winter sports come with orthopaedic risks of their own.

“When it comes to ankle injuries on snow or ice, no one is invincible,” says Dr. Witkowski. “However, most ankle injuries can be prevented or minimized by exercising caution and wearing proper attire in the snow and ice.”

If you suspect an ankle fracture or have persistent ankle pain and swelling after an acute incident like a fall on ice, visit the emergency department or urgent care immediately.

Gregory P. Witkowski, MD
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