BYLINE: Robin Frank

Newswise — For many people, the start of winter means pleasant evenings by the fireplace, holiday celebrations and making plans for skiing and other snow sports. But it isn’t all fun and games. During the cold weather months, orthopedic specialists at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) often see an uptick in injuries and foot problems that could be avoided with good practices. They urge everyone to prepare for cold weather challenges.

The first step is to make sure that winter shoes and boots stored away for almost a year still fit well, says Dr. Mark Drakos, an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon at HSS Long Island and at the main hospital in Manhattan. “Our feet change as we get older, and footwear that fit us last year may now be too tight,” he explains. “Squeezing your feet into shoes that are too snug can lead to foot pain, blisters, bruises and other problems.”   

When shopping for new shoes or boots, Dr. Drakos recommends going to the store in the late afternoon or evening because our feet tend to get bigger as the day goes on. He says it’s a good idea to bring the socks you plan to wear in the cold weather, as they may be thicker and need more room in the shoe.

Good traction is as important as fit when streets are covered with snow and ice. “It may seem like common sense, but the first winter storm of the season often catches people off guard, and we tend to see more injuries,” says Dr. Andrew Elliott, an orthopedic foot and ankle surgeon at HSS locations in Manhattan and Paramus, New Jersey. He recommends keeping a spare pair of winter shoes at work in the event of unexpected snow. Various types of anti-slip shoe covers, which are easy to find online, can also provide traction on slick surfaces. 

Winterize Your Feet

For many of us, moisturizing our face and hands during the winter is must, but we may not give much thought to dry skin on our feet. If you are prone to dry, cracked heels and other problems that are more common in winter, experts recommend moisturizing your feet daily.

It is also important to keep your feet clean and dry to ward off fungus and infections such as athlete’s foot. Acrylic-blend socks that wick away moisture can help. Experts recommend changing socks after exercising, engaging in winter activities, or at the end of the day, when appropriate. If shoes and socks become wet, be sure to dry them out overnight, Dr. Elliott says.

Very low temperatures can be hard on our feet. Exposure to cold air causes the body to slow blood circulation to the extremities to preserve the body’s core temperature. If you must be out in the cold, water-resistant, insulated footwear and warm socks are essential. The potential for frostbite must never be taken lightly, Dr. Elliott says. Anyone who starts to experience numbness and pain is advised to go to a warmer environment as soon as possible. People with diabetes are at particular risk, as nerve damage known as neuropathy may prevent them from feeling the cold, he notes.

Preparing for Winter Sports

Whether returning to a winter sport such as skiing or trying a new one, strength training and conditioning in advance are important to get your body ready, says Dr. James Wyss, a physiatrist at HSS Long Island who specializes in treating patients with sports injuries and other painful conditions. “Everyone should also take the time to warm up before an athletic activity,” he says. “This is essential to prevent injury." 

An effective 10-minute warm-up targets the muscles that will be used in the planned activity, Dr. Wyss explains. For example, if someone is going hiking or snowshoeing, some brisk walking on a level surface or climbing a couple of flights of stairs beforehand would be good. 

Many people are devoted to outdoor running year-round, and wearing a shoe with good traction is important, says Dr. Tony Wanich, an orthopedic surgeon at the HSS Sports Medicine Institute in Manhattan. “Much like the way we change our tires to deal with winter weather, we advise runners to wear the appropriate shoes for the season,” he says. Sometimes that means going to a specialized shoe store, where employees can help you choose the right shoe and ensure a good fit.

Dr. Wanich also recommends wearing insulated socks in very cold weather. He notes that running enthusiasts are often ‘‘in the zone’’ – so caught up in the sport, they may not realize they are developing mild frostbite. In addition to good cold weather gear, awareness of dropping temperatures is critical to stay safe.  

Anyone who starts to experience pain during an activity should stop and take a break, the doctors say. For a foot problem that isn’t improving, it’s best to see a doctor sooner rather than later. If you have vowed to get more exercise in the New Year, taking care of your feet now will enable you to keep that resolution later.

About HSS

HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the 13th consecutive year), No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2022-2023), and the best pediatric orthopedic hospital in NY, NJ and CT by U.S. News & World Report “Best Children’s Hospitals” list (2022-2023). In a survey of medical professionals in more than 20 countries by Newsweek, HSS is ranked world #1 in orthopedics for a third consecutive year (2023). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has the lowest complication and readmission rates in the nation for orthopedics, and among the lowest infection rates. HSS was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center five consecutive times. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State, as well as in Florida. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Innovation Institute works to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The HSS Education Institute is a trusted leader in advancing musculoskeletal knowledge and research for physicians, nurses, allied health professionals, academic trainees, and consumers in more than 145 countries. The institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.