5 Tips to Prevent Concussions During the Winter

By Ellen McKinnon, NP

The winter months are a time for adventurous sports and activities, including skiing, snowboarding, ice skating and hockey. Unfortunately, it is also a time for head and neck injuries due to fast speeds and slippery surfaces. Whether you’re vacationing at a ski resort, playing in an ice hockey tournament or just trying to shovel a pathway through the snow to get to your car, it is important to take necessary precautions to avoid serious head injuries.

Always wear properly fitting helmets when participating in winter sports such as ice hockey, skiing, and snowboarding. Your brain is virtually floating in cerebral spinal fluid within the skull. When there is a rapid acceleration/deceleration to the head and/or body — for example getting checked in ice hockey — the brain collides with the inside of your skull. It can potentially even rebound back in the opposite direction, sustaining a second blow.

A helmet does not prevent your brain from moving within your skull, but it can help dissipate the force over a larger area. This can significantly reduce the risk for more severe traumatic brain injuries, including brain hemorrhages, penetrating wounds and skull fractures. Therefore, it is crucial to always wear a helmet during a sport where there is increased risk for head injuries. Always make sure the helmet is in good condition and is being worn correctly.

Ensure occupational safety. During the winter months there is obvious potential for frequent bad weather. While most people are lucky enough to have relaxing snow days sipping hot chocolate by the fire, some are outside working in the wintery elements. Plow drivers, electricians, police, and EMS are all examples of workers who need to take extra precaution to avoid head injuries when working in heavy snow and icy conditions. It is important to wear proper non-slip shoes, have adequate lighting, and wear reflective gear and hard hats.

Avoid falls. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls were the leading cause of all traumatic brain injuries and accounted for 47 percent of emergency department (ED) visits, hospitalizations and deaths in 2013. While it is important to avoid falls all year round, it is even more imperative in colder weather. If you have to go outside, be vigilant in avoiding black ice, wear shoes with good grip, hold on to a railing, and go slow! Make sure all indoor and outdoor pathways are well lit to avoid tripping or stumbling. Shovel driveways, sidewalks and stairways completely and don’t forget to put salt down to help melt ice.

Avoid hazardous conditions. Always check your local weather forecast before leaving your house. Stay home if conditions are not safe for driving.

Know the warning signs of concussion. While you’re having fun on the slopes, it is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of a concussion should you, or someone you’re with, become injured. Check for the following:

  • Confusion or disorientation — Ask the person what happened, where they are, their name, and the date. They may have trouble following directions or understanding what you are asking. They also may be speaking very slowly.
  • Loss of consciousness — This can be a sign, though keep in mind that a person can still have a concussion even if there was no loss of consciousness.
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of balance or poor coordination
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Dazed/stunned
  • Changes in vision

If you or the person is showing any of these signs or symptoms, it is important to be evaluated by a medical professional. If injury occurs during a winter sport, it is vital the person stop playing immediately and not return until they are recovered and cleared.

Ellen McKinnon is a board-certified family nurse practitioner with Emerson Hospital’s Dr. Robert C. Cantu Concussion Center in Concord, Mass. To learn more, call 978-287-8250 or visit emersonhospital.org/concussion.