With the temperatures dropping below freezing and weather forecasters excitedly calling for snow, sleet and ice, New Englanders know winter is here. And here comes a typical pattern of aches and complaints.
First, there is stiffness in the neck and upper shoulders in an area covered by the upper trapezius muscle. The upper trapezius forms a triangle with its top point attaching at the base of the neck and the other points covering the tops of the shoulders. A natural reflex in the cold is to elevate your shoulders to protect your neck. Although this is not the most effective way to stay warm, we all seem to do it. In turn, this causes your chin to tip up and compresses the back of your neck into your body, pulling your head forward. Tight necks and shoulders often result. If this pattern continues, the tightness at the back of the neck often gives rise to occipital headaches (headaches that start in the back of the head).
Sinus problems from changes in barometric pressure and low humidity often add an extra pinch to an already tight neck. We recommend people use a home humidifier as soon as they turn on the heating system because it can significantly reduce sinus issues. A constant humidity of 50%-55% is ideal indoors.
Taking steps to keep your neck warm does cut down on hunched up shoulders, but just being aware of your body position is the best defense.
The other common complaint when we start getting slippery outdoor surfaces is hip tightness and pain. Unsure footing produces the natural tendency to take shorter steps while keeping your leg and hip muscles tight in case your foot slips. Continued use of this way of walking outdoors often leads to tightness around the outside of the upper legs and hips as the muscles try to accommodate to this abnormal way of walking. Left unchecked, tightness and spasm can develop in the buttocks and low back muscles.
If your foot should slip on the ice, catching yourself and not falling can sometimes cause muscles to go into spasm almost as much as actually falling. The best prevention of the entire ice problem is to get non-slip traction for your shoes. The most common type is called Yaktrax, which can be found at Eastern Mountain Sports stores or on line at Yaktrax.com.
Recognizing how your body naturally tries to help you in cold weather when things get slippery will help you stay ahead of some cold weather problems.