Beware of Slips and Falls, Frostbite and Hypothermia, Doctors Warn

As the blizzard tapers off, doctors warn people to take caution.

December 27, 2010, 1:38 PM

Dec. 27, 2010— -- Dr. Gabriel Wilson, associate medical director at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York, worked his emergency room shift until 3 a.m. Monday. He cared for three people who sustained wrist fractures, one person with an ankle fracture and two who had received blows to the head. Every injury stemmed from slips on ice and snow.

"These are the typical snow-related injuries, and the only thing one can do, other than being careful walking in the snow, is to wear padded gloves, jackets and hats, which may cushion the fall," said Wilson.

In the past 24 hours, winter weather conditions have gripped most of the Northeast, causing travel delays and cancellations galore. As the blizzard tapers off and people are left to rebook flights and trek through piles of snow, doctors warn people to take special care.

Dr. Richard Bradley, associate professor of emergency medicine and chief of EMS and disaster medicine at University of Texas Medical School at Houston, reiterated the importance of keeping warm during the plummeting temperatures.

"The onset of hypothermia can be very difficult to detect," said Bradley. "We lose a lot of people every year from it, because people often don't realize they're becoming hypothermic."

Bradley said people often chalk up hypothermia symptoms to feeling sleepy or fatigued.

"But as the hypothermia worsens, people realize even less that they're getting colder," said Bradley. "We see this a lot in people who are alone and don't have anyone to say, 'Hey, you don't look so good.'"

Dr. Hersch Leon Pachter, a professor and chairman of the department of surgery at New York University School of Medicine, said hypothermic patients who come into the emergency room are often homeless.

"A lot of people off the street come in with hypothermia," said Pachter. "They're sleeping outside and being exposed to the elements."

But for all those who willingly brave the elements for a dose of winter activity, frostbite can put a damper on a winter day outdoors.

Frostbite Dangers

"At this time of year, especially when you're having fun, it's possible to get frostbite, which is actually the freezing of parts of the body," said Bradley. "Digits begin to lose sensation and turn white or waxy, and the worst thing you can do is warm them and freeze them again."

This tidbit could surprise even the most avid of winter athletes.

Bradley said that warming a frostbitten area, then subjecting it to the freezing cold again can cause ice crystals in the tissue, which only multiplies the damage done to the frostbitten skin.

Bradley said that if people develop signs of frostbite while hiking or hunting, they should wait to rewarm the area until safely out of elements.

"The rewarming process can be quite painful." said Bradley, "So, if you have signs of frostbite, it's a good idea to go to the ER and have it treated in a controlled setting."

And, while it's one thing to be walking around in the winter wonderland, it's a whole different animal to be driving. If you're on the road, Pachter said it's particularly important not to become a victim of self-deception. Be cautious, no matter what kind of vehicle you're driving.

"You're not superman because you're in a souped-up SUV," said Pachter. "Some people have a lot of moxy when driving those SUVs. They think they can get in their four-wheel-drive car and go 60 miles an hour."

When really, Pachter said, it's that reckless driving that causes visits to the emergency room.

So, what should people do when there are blizzard conditions snowing in on the parade?

When possible, doctors said to stay home. It's simply not worth the risks.

But with airports closed and modes of transportation canceled, many people are doing just that: staying home. The unexpected amount of post-holiday family time comes as a pleasant surprise to some and an added stress for others.

Dealing With the Extra Dose of Kin

"Deal with it with a smile and a sense of humor," said Dr. Carol Bernstein, associate professor of psychiatry at new York University's Langone Medical Center. "The good thing is that people know it's out of their control, so in a weird way, it can take some of the pressure off. Nobody expects that you would have expected to plan gifts and party and food for the extra day or two."

But for others, the extra dose of kin can add an even bigger dose of stress in dealing with travel changes.

Nadine Kaslow, a professor and chief psychologist at Emory University School of Medicine, suggests engaging in activities as an antidote to the stress.

"Play games, tell family stories ... sit at the movies, where you're together but you're not doing anything that's going to be so stressful," said Kaslow. "Accept that stress levels are high, and be compassionate toward yourself and others."

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