Winter brings a slew of challenges to daily life. There are few water cooler conversations this time of year that don’t include some talk of how cold it is, how long it took to get to work and how stressed we’ve all become preparing for the holidays. It’s also a time when the chance for serious injuries increases, apart from the obvious-auto accidents.

As an orthopedic surgeon, at this time of year, I see an increase in the number of sprain and fracture injuries-hips and wrists in particular. The big culprit is ice and a very treacherous form known as “black ice” that forms when temperatures rise and fall quickly making the slick patches difficult to see.

I’m very concerned about the older population in this regard. Most healthy, young adults can usually survive falling from an upright position with minimal damage. Even if a fracture occurs, the recovery is fairly quick, given no secondary complications exist. But for those aged 75 and above, falls can be devastating. A 2009 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows a quarter of all elderly patients suffering from a hip fracture die within a year. Why? As we age and our bones weaken and put us at risk for what we call fragility fractures. It typically involves surgery and certain risks, along with the immobility caused by a broken hip. Facing a long hospitalization and rehabilitation, your odds of everything from bedsores to pneumonia increase dramatically. As people age, they also suffer what doctors call co-morbidities. These are multiple, chronic ailments like diabetes and heart disease occurring at the same time.

Awareness may be the best form of prevention when it comes to falls. Take time to monitor the weather and know where the slick areas form where you live and travel. Work on techniques to improve your balance. Also, use a cane or walker if you need it. This is no time to be a hero. Wait, or get assistance picking up your mail or newspaper. If you live around elderly neighbors, this is a great time of year to check on them and offer to help with mobility issues.

The next set of injuries I see this time of year is a rise in “weekend warrior” injuries. Those are the people who like to take advantage of the opportunity to sled, ski and snowboard when snow accumulates-sometimes without regard to training and ability. According to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, more than 440,000 people were treated for winter sports-related injuries in 2010. Common winter sports injuries include sprains, strains, dislocations and fractures. Many of these injuries happen at the end of the day, when people are fatigued.

Participating in any strenuous sport (outdoors of otherwise) should always involve proper conditioning. Regardless of age, our bodies need to be warmed up and our muscles stretched. Wear proper clothing and equipment for the activity--especially a helmet when called for. If it hurts, stop!

When is it time to see the doctor for a cold-weather injury?

• The injury involves a fracture • The injury prevents bearing weight • The injury involves a visible deformity • The injury shows no improvement within 24-48 hours.

R.I.C.E. is the most common treatment for many non-serious athletic injuries: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.

Finally, cold weather puts a strain on your heart even without exercise. Be careful when shoveling snow or pushing cars. Working in cold weather can strain your body, even if you’re in good shape. Take frequent breaks and don’t overexert yourself. Listen to your body-many injuries are avoidable and occur when people continue strenuous activities well after they’ve become fatigued.

There is a great deal about winter to enjoy. I wish you that enjoyment in the safest and healthiest way.

Dr. Kevin Witte, DO, is an orthopedic surgeon at St. Mary’s Medical Center and can be reached at 816-220-8727.