Tis the season, the aches and pains of winter.
Dr. Thomas Patavino D.C., MS, F.I.A.M.A.

          It's the most wonderful time of the year. The Holidays are upon us and everyone is gearing up for the festive season. Time to pull out the mistletoe, trim the trees and prepare for Santa. Most of us can still find the spirit of the season, although it has changed dramatically since we were kids. The excitement and anticipation sometimes get lost in all the mayhem of the holidays.  Although some seem to skate through winter stress free, the majority of us will feel some type of stress throughout the winter months.  The cold weather, last minute holiday shopping, crowds at the malls, and the most dreaded of all….bills. 

        Winter seems to be the season we feel the most aches and pains. The cold weather decreases blood flow to the muscles, so they instantly tighten up with the chill of the blustery wind. Those tightened muscles become susceptible to injury. For starters, a tight, cold muscle shortens its length. This reduces our range of motion. Normal motions like walking up the stairs or reaching overhead are now much more difficult and noticeable to perform in the cold weather. It doesn't take a lot of motion or weight to injure a shortened cold muscle. Tying a shoe or picking up a purse or bag of groceries can strain a muscle.

         A strained muscle, or what we commonly call a “pulled muscle” occurs when a shortened muscle is lengthened beyond its comfort zone. This is usually caused by an activity such as picking up an object, falling or slipping. When this occurs, some of the tiny muscle fibers are torn and ligaments and tendons are stretched. A variety of symptoms appear with this type of injury. Pain is probably the most noticeable. Those tiny tears in the muscle lead to inflammation, swelling, redness and the stimulation of pain receptors. Muscle spasm is also very common with sprain/strain injuries. Involuntary twitching and contractions occur. Sometimes the spasm can be so powerful, the muscle shortens to the point where it won't relax. A good example of this is when the back muscles lock up on someone and they cannot straighten up. Most of us have known someone who has had “their back go out” and have been incapacitated as a result. Although the back is a common area for strain and spasm, it can occur in any muscle that is overused or misused with activity.

           Stress also takes its toll on our bodies. The body acts like a sponge when it comes to stress. We know we aren't supposed to keep things bottled up inside because stress harms the body. It puts strain on the heart, raises blood pressure and is linked to gastrointestinal problems. Without question, winter is probably the most stressful season of the year.  Besides being influenced by the cold, muscles are also affected a great deal by stress. Those tiny little muscle fibers get tangled into knots when mental, chemical and physical stress show their ugly faces. Sometimes we don't even realize that we have stress in our lives and are muscles form those knots called trigger points. Trigger points are best described as a knot in the muscle that usually refers pain to other parts of the body. Common examples are knots in the upper shoulder area that cause tension head aches or pain that travels down the arm into the hands.

             As stated, strained muscles and trigger points can occur with very little activity due to the impact of the cold weather. If it doesn't take a lot to aggravate the muscles, you can imagine the impact of shoveling snow or slipping on the ice. These are two of the more common culprits that lead to winter injuries. It is natural to feel some soreness after doing activity like shoveling since we don't use those muscles day in and day out. Slipping on the ice, with or without falling, can stretch and strain muscles causing muscle pain and inflammation.

            How do we know what is normal soreness versus an injury that should seek treatment? I like to use the 3-day rule. Typically after a large amount of activity, the body should recover in 2 to 3 days. If the pain and soreness goes beyond that, chances are you injured the muscle and you should seek treatment to facilitate the healing process and avoid creating a chronic condition down the road. Typical sprain or strained muscle injuries can take 6 to 8 weeks to heal on average. This can be more or less in some cases, with better results occurring in those who take appropriate measures to ensure proper healing. Trigger points typically respond in 3 to 5 treatments. Restoring proper blood flow to the damaged muscle area is essential to alleviate referred pain. There are a variety of treatment options available and you should consult your health care professional to decide the best course of action.

            It is impossible to predict what the winter may bring. Stress, cold and snow are inevitable forces that will undoubtedly enter our lives over the next few months. Dressing in layers will help keep those muscles warm to reduce the risk of injury. Bending at the knees and pushing snow instead of lifting or throwing it will reduce pressure placed on the low back. Sand, salt and kitty litter sprinkled on icy steps and walkways are suggested to decrease the chances of slip and fall injuries. Getting your Christmas shopping done early or buying through catalogs and online reduces holiday stress. In addition, one person should bare the burden of all the preparations involved with holiday gatherings. There is strength in numbers and this will reduce stress and anxiety. Although, one cannot guarantee a smooth sleigh ride through the winter, these suggestions may reduce seasonal aches and pains.  Have a happy, safe and healthy holiday.

          Dr. Thomas Patavino can be reached for questions or comments at dr.tpatavino@sbcglobal.net or 203-758-7250.