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Put the freeze on winter back pain

When the weather outside is frightful, there's nothing delightful about back pain. Winter cold can take a toll on back muscles, tendons and ligaments. And when you toss in the risk of winter slips and falls and injuries from strenuous winter tasks, it's no wonder back pain often worsens when temperatures take a dive.

Back pain—especially low back pain—is a hard, cold fact for most of us. According to the National Institutes of Health, 8 out of 10 people in the U.S. deal with back pain at some point during their lives. It's the most common reason people miss days of work or seek medical care. And most often, back pain occurs during winter months.


What are the most common causes of winter back pain?

In general, sprains and strains are the most common causes of back pain. They can happen suddenly or slowly over time. Strains often occur from twisting or pulling a muscle or tendon in your back. In the winter, back pain and injuries are most often caused by:

  • Decreased activity. Winter months often mean less exercise and movement. Doing less adds more stress on joints.
  • Weather-related injuries. Wet or icy surfaces increase the risk of slips, falls and spills. Shoveling snow can also strain muscles and ligaments.
  • Shivering. Shivering is a natural response to the cold and the body's way to produce heat by contracting muscles. Those contractions can also cause cramps or muscle tightness.
  • Seasonal depression. Holiday stress, cold weather and the dark, cold days of winter can take an emotional toll. Anxiety and depression can lead to fatigue, inactivity and a heightened sensitivity to pain. 

Why does my back hurt more when the weather is cold?

If you find back pain is more frequent this time of year, there's a reason why. And it all points to a little thing called physics. (Don't worry…this won't be on the test.) 

When temperatures drop, muscles, tendons and ligaments that support the spine contract and become stiffer and more rigid. That can worsen existing back or neck pain and may even cause new problems.

How can I prevent back pain in the winter?

Here are a few ways to prevent back strains and sprains during the chilly months of winter:

  • Exercise consistently. The thermometer may tell you to stay put by the fire, but it's important to stay active and mobile. Regular exercise strengthens the core, which strengthens your spine and reduces the chance of back pain. You don't need to commit to a rigorous workout to get your muscles into action.
    • Find an indoor gym with a walking track or get in your laps at the local mall. 
    • Search Netflix for some simple workouts. 
    • Team up with friends or family for a brisk stroll through the neighborhood. 

Women walking outdoors. Aim for 20 minutes of walking each day.

  • Dress appropriately. Whether you work outdoors or venture out for a run, errands or cold-weather golf game, dress in several thin layers for warmth. Wear hats, gloves, scarves and boots, and opt for footwear with rubber soles to provide traction and support on slippery surfaces.
  • Step lightly. It's wet and icy out there, so watch your step and take your time. If you live in an area prone to winter weather, de-ice driveways and walkways with rock salt, calcium chloride or magnesium chloride. For added traction, scatter a little sand or cat litter on icy spots.

Learn more about preventing winter slips and falls.

  • Lift (and shovel) the right way. Whenever you lift heavy objects at work or in your home, always practice the proper form to protect your back. That also goes for shoveling snow. 
    • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other.
    • Squat down and lift with your legs, not your back.
    • Keep your back straight and avoid arching or twisting.  
    • Keep the shovel close to your body.
    • Shovel only small amounts of snow at a time.
    • Dump snow by pivoting your entire body along the direction of your foot.
    • Keep arm movement to a minimum to avoid strain on back, shoulder and arms.
    • Take small, frequent breaks to prevent overexertion.

Indy Tip!

Use a snow shovel that's the proper height to avoid bending your back. Ideally, the shovel should line up with your elbow when arms are at your side.

  • Stretch. Stretching isn't just a prelude to strenuous winter exercise. It's a great way to improve balance, warm up muscles, strengthen your core and keep limber. Stretching also reduces the likelihood of muscle strains and soreness. Try to set aside 10-15 minutes each day to give your muscles some love. 
    • Before you stretch, warm up cold muscles with 10 minutes of light exercise, like walking.
    • Hold stretches (without bouncing) for 10 to 30 seconds.
    • Breathe normally through the stretch.
    • Alternate stretches.
    • Stretch before and after exercising to warm up and cool off.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration isn't a risk only during hot summer months. It's also important to drink enough fluids during the winter, especially if you're active. How much you need to stay properly hydrated depends on several factors. According to the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, adequate daily intake is about 15.5 cups of fluids a day for men and around 11.5 cups of fluids a day for women. (Don't freak out. You get about 20 percent of that from the foods you eat.)
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight puts added pressure on vertebrae and disks.
  • Seek help for anxiety and depression. If you're depressed, don't wait for a break in the weather to get help. Indigo Online Care offers screenings for anxiety and depression for adults 18 and older. Simply complete a quick questionnaire and connect with a trusted Indigo Health  provider via video to talk about a care plan and treatment options.


How do I treat back pain at home?

In most cases, back pain from sprains or strains will resolve itself on its own. Here are a few home-treatment options to ease low-back discomfort:

  • Ice and heat packs. Heat and cold have been shown to be effective ways to relieve back pain. 
    • Up to 48 to 72 hours after an injury, apply an ice pack to reduce inflammation and ease pain. Wrap the pack in a towel and place directly on the injured area.
    • Use a heating pad to relieve stiff or achy muscles.
  • Pain relievers. To ease discomfort, take over-the-counter pain medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or naproxen (Aleve).
  • Movement. Light exercise and gentle stretching may improve tissue healing by bringing more blood flow to the injured area.
  • Limited bed rest. If pain is severe and it's difficult to sit or stand, rest may help. To prevent muscles from stiffening, limit bed rest to only a few hours at a time for no more than two days.


Indigo Health can ease the pain

Don't let winter back pain put you out of action for the season. If your back pain doesn't improve after a few days, it's probably time to seek medical treatment.

Our friendly, frost-free Indigo Health providers can evaluate your low back pain and help you manage your symptoms. If additional care is needed, we'll refer you to a specialist to help you get to the root of your pain.

If you prefer care from the comfort of home, Indigo Online Care providers are available to treat many common illnesses and conditions, including low back pain.

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