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Slipped on the Ice? How to Know If Your Injury Is Serious

In many parts of the country, winter means icy roads and sidewalks. And with ice comes the increased risk of falling and hurting yourself. James Robinson, MD, a primary sports medicine physician at HSS, offers this advice about treating your winter injuries.
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If you twisted your wrist or ankle: The most common injury that occurs from a fall is a wrist sprain or wrist fracture. That’s because it’s natural to use your hands to catch yourself. It’s hard to tell by pain alone whether a wrist is sprained or fractured, because they can be equally as painful. The first thing to check is whether your arm looks crooked. If it does, the bone is broken, and you need to go to the emergency room to have the bone set. If it doesn’t, the injury is likely a sprain rather than a fracture, and it should heal on its own after a week or two.

To treat a sprain, start with ice. Alternate 20 minutes on and 20 minutes off. Keep your arm elevated and take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Sometimes wearing a brace from the drugstore or wrapping your wrist with a bandage can help with swelling and make it feel better. If it’s been several days and it’s not feeling better, you may need an X-ray to rule out a fracture.

Ankles are probably the second most common thing people injure. The guidelines for ankles are similar to those for wrists. If you can put your weight on it immediately after the injury, it’s more likely to be an ankle sprain than an ankle fracture. If you’re able to walk on it, give it a few days; it should gradually start getting better. Ice it, keep it elevated, take anti-inflammatory medications and consider wrapping it with a bandage. With ankles, swelling and bruising aren’t a good indication of how serious the injury is. They tend to swell and bruise quite a bit whether it’s a sprain or a fracture.

If you banged up your knee or elbow: With joints, like knees and elbows, the big thing you want to watch for is swelling. If it’s severe, that usually indicates there’s some kind of injury inside the joint, and you should get it checked out. As long as you’re able to move the joint and you don’t have any numbness or tingling, you can probably wait a few days and see if it’s getting better on its own.

If you landed on your tailbone or hip: Whether your tailbone is broken or just bruised, there’s not much that can be done for it. Unless you are having numbness or tingling in your legs, this is something you can probably treat at home. Ice it, take anti-inflammatory medications and avoid any activity that causes more pain. If it hurts to sit down, you may want to get a donut pillow. Tailbones can take anywhere from two to six weeks to heal, whether it’s a bruise or a fracture.

If your hip is broken, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to walk on it. If you can’t walk, it’s important to go to the hospital right away. If you need surgery for a broken hip, outcomes are better if done early. Do not delay seeking medical care if you think your hip might be broken. If you can walk with minimal pain, it might be bruised. In that case, you can treat it at home, similar to how you would treat a tailbone injury. If the pain continues longer than a few days, get it checked out.

If you bumped your head: Symptoms of a concussion can vary. The most common ones are headache, difficulty concentrating or remembering things, nausea and irritability. If you have a mild concussion, you should take it easy, both physically and mentally. The vast majority of concussions resolve on their own — 75% within a week and 95% within three weeks.

If you have more severe symptoms, it’s important to go to the emergency room right away. These symptoms include numbness or weakness on one side of your body, blurred or double vision or loss of vision in one eye, slurred speech or severe vomiting. They are much more worrisome and are indications of a brain bleed.

Don’t skip going to the doctor because of COVID-19 fears. If you are seriously injured, it’s important to be seen by a professional. Emergency rooms try to separate those with COVID-19 symptoms from those with other kinds of ailments. Some even allow you to wait in the car until it’s your turn to be seen. HSS offers specialized urgent care for orthopedic injuries. Whether you go to an orthopedic clinic or another urgent care facility, call before you go to learn about the clinic’s procedures. If you don’t plan to go to the ER or urgent care, it still may be a good idea to give your doctor a call. Many doctors are now doing telemedicine, and they may be able to evaluate an injury and provide advice.

Perhaps the most important tip with regard to injuries from falls on the ice is to avoid them in the first place. Try not to walk in areas where there’s a lot of ice. If you have to walk on an icy sidewalk or driveway, be alert and pay attention. Most falls occur because people are distracted doing other things, like talking on their phones or carrying groceries. If you’re walking outside when it’s icy, it’s important to wear proper shoes. They should fit well and have soles that provide traction.

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