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Cold Weather Tips to Protect Your Feet and Ankles

Foot and ankle surgeons provide essential winter safety advice

It is never a good time for a foot or ankle injury, but some might consider the colder months to be the most inconvenient time to have their feet or ankles out of commission. Ironically, it is during the winter when many injuries in the lower extremities occur due to weather-related incidents.

From ankle sprains, to frostbite to broken toes, the damage can vary. However, by taking proper preventive measures, a person can decrease his or her chance of incurring a foot or ankle problem during the colder months, according to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons (ACFAS).

“During the winter months, patients should take extra precaution to keep their feet warm and dry when navigating frigid temps, especially patients who have existing health conditions,” said Massachusetts-based foot and ankle surgeon and ACFAS Fellow Member Greg Catalano, DPM, FACFAS.

In general, most people would do best to take the necessary safety steps to avoid foot and ankle injuries in the winter. However, injury prevention for those who have poor circulation, nerve damage caused by neuropathy or Raynaud’s phenomenon, which is an extreme sensitivity to coldness, can be paramount.

To help, ACFAS provides three critical and easy-to-follow tips that can mean all the difference between comfort and pain in your feet during the winter.

1. Wear the Right Shoes
“Whether caused by wearing high heels on icy surfaces or just sheer accident, falls are one of the most common causes of weather-related injuries. Wintertime falls often result in an ankle sprain, or worse, a broken bone in the foot, ankle, heel or toe. I encourage patients to wear low-heeled shoes or boots with a traction sole to help prevent slipping,” said Dr. Catalano.

Equally important, wearing warm shoes or boots can protect a person’s feet in frigid temps. “Wearing water-resistant, insulated footwear serves as a barrier between the feet and outside elements; this is particularly important for patients with neuropathy or Raynaud’s phenomenon. While different, both conditions block normal blood flow in the feet and places a person at a greater risk of developing additional problems. In some cases, people can incur chilblains, which are itchy, tender, red patches that emerge in response to cold air, or in extreme cases, frostbite,” added Dr. Catalano.

Remember, the thicker the insulation, the greater the protection is between a person’s feet and the adverse effects caused by cold weather.

2. Keep Your Feet Dry  
Damp feet can cause cold feet and can be just as harmful.

Wearing moisture-wicking socks will help keep feet dry from internal wetness caused by sweat, while water-resistant footwear will ward off external weather elements that can cause dampness.

“I encourage my patients to wear appropriate socks as a standard practice during the winter months to guard their feet in both foreseen and unexpected inclement weather conditions,” said Dr. Catalano.

For some, inserting foot warmers in their shoes serves as an extra layer of protection. Before doing so, it is best to consult with a foot and ankle surgeon. If worn incorrectly, foot warmers can burn the skin and cause severe harm for those with nerve damage.

3. Get the Right Help
With all that can happen to the feet and ankles during the winter months, it is best to know what to do when faced with a condition or injury brought on by cold weather.

“In the case of a suspected fracture or sprain caused by a fall, see a foot and ankle surgeon or visit the emergency room as soon as possible for prompt diagnosis and treatment. If medical care is unavailable, for temporary relief of symptoms, try the RICE principle—Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. But remember, delaying treatment can result in long-term complications,” added Dr. Catalano.

For feet that are exposed to cold and dampness for a prolonged period, soak them in warm water, avoiding hot water or direct heat. Soaking them in warm water will allow the feet to regain their normal temperature gradually.

5 Tips for Avoiding Falls on the Ice This Winter

Winter is here, with its frigid temperatures, howling winds and snowy, icy conditions.  The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons (ACFAS) reports that falls on icy surfaces are a major cause of ankle sprains and fractures and offers these tips to keep you safe this winter season.

  1. Wear low-heeled boots or overshoes with good traction.  High-heeled boots may be in style, but for walking on snow and ice it’s best to forego fashion in favor of safety.

  2. Watch for ice and snow, Holiday winter wonderlands can be beautiful but also dangerous – watch for ice or snow patches along your trail. The ankle joint can be more vulnerable to serious injury from falling on ice as it accelerates the fall and often causes more severe trauma since the foot can move in any direction after it slips.

  3. As soon as you get inside, remove your boots or dry them well. Snow and ice can remain on shoes, leading to falls indoors.

  4. Never assume the ability to walk means your ankle isn’t broken or badly sprained. Putting weight on the injured joint can worsen the problem and lead to chronic instability, joint pain and arthritis later in life. It is also possible to have both a fractured and sprained ankle at the same time, and a bad sprain can mask a fracture. It’s best to have an injured ankle evaluated as soon as possible by a foot and ankle surgeon for proper diagnosis and treatment.

  5. If you do experience a fall or injury, call a foot and ankle surgeon for prompt evaluation and treatment. Use R.I.C.E. therapy (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) to help reduce the pain and control swelling around the injury in the meantime.

Falls happen quickly. On average less than two seconds elapse between the beginning and end of a fall, so be aware of what you can do to protect yourself in that time. If you fall on an icy spot and hurt your ankle, the best advice is to seek medical attention immediately to aid in early diagnosis and proper treatment and reduce the risk of further damage.

Winter’s Balancing Act

The wrong boot could lead to ankle and foot injuries.

Winter’s popular women’s boots typically feature tall, spiked heels and narrow, pointed toes. These boots can make your feet unstable on snow- and ice-covered surfaces.

A stylish low-heeled winter boot is a lot more fashionable than a cast and crutches. We recommend that women scuff up the soles of new boots, or purchase adhesive rubber soles, to provide greater traction.

Falls from high-heeled winter boots can lead to a number of injuries, depending on how you lose your balance. If your ankles roll inward or outward, you can break your ankles. If your ankle twists, ligaments can be stretched or torn, causing an ankle sprain. Broken and sprained ankles can be present at the same time. Slipping or falling in these boots can also cause broken toe, metatarsal and heel bones.

If you do get hurt, call a foot and ankle surgeon for prompt evaluation and treatment. In the meantime, the RICE method should be followed. This involves:

  • Rest. Stay off the injured foot since walking can cause further damage.

  • Ice. To reduce swelling and pain, apply a bag of ice over a thin towel to the affected area. Do not put ice directly against the skin. Use ice for 20 minutes and then wait at least 40 minutes before icing again.

  • Compression. An elastic wrap should be used to control swelling.

  • Elevation. Keep the foot elevated to reduce the swelling. It should be even with or slightly above the heart level.

Tips to avoid winter ankle injuries:

  • Keep areas around outside doorways well lit so icy patches are visible.

  • Wear shoes or boots with a traction sole that can prevent slipping.

  • Check for slippery spots before getting out of a car or walking on stairs.

  • Avoid wearing high-heeled shoes outdoors.

  • Stretch and warm up before outdoor and indoor physical activities.