Monday Medical: Keep hands safe all winter long |

Monday Medical: Keep hands safe all winter long

Something as simple as pouring a cup of coffee and taking a sip can be a challenge with a hand or arm injury. And with winter’s arrival, plenty of hand and arm injuries are just waiting to happen.

As an occupational therapist and certified hand therapist at SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center, Emily Van Wieren sees them all. Below, she outlines three hand and arm injuries that are common in winter.

Tennis elbow: In Steamboat, this injury could be called shoveling elbow. It can be caused any repetitive motion. Shoveling snow is a culprit, as are activities common in the service industry, such as making coffees or adjusting skis.

Doing the same motion over and over can damage the forearm muscles and tendons, specifically the tendon that crosses from the wrist to the elbow. Pain on the outside of the elbow increases until it’s present even with simple actions such as turning a door handle or holding a coffee cup.

To help prevent this injury while shoveling, warm up and stretch, keep your elbows bent to the side and grip lightly. Take small scoops of snow, rest frequently, and maintain your core strength.

If you have elbow soreness, Van Wieren recommends applying a cold pack immediately.

“What we talk about in therapy is getting the pain under control as quickly as possible before it becomes a problem,” she said. “When you start to feel pain, seek treatment and rest, because it can become a bad problem.”

As with other injuries, surgery may be necessary, but hand therapy is important to restore motion and function, and then strength.

Skier’s thumb: If a skier falls and doesn’t let go of the pole, the pole can yank the thumb away from the hand, stretching or tearing the ligament that stabilizes the thumb. But this injury isn’t only a result of skiing — it can happen in any fall.

“The most important clue you have in this injury is significant weakness,” Van Wieren said. “You can’t hold or squeeze things between the index finger and thumb, or it’s painful to do.” The thumb may also be sensitive to touch, bruised or swollen.

Skier’s thumb can be confused with others injuries, so a visit to the doctor may be in order if you’re experiencing these symptoms. Surgery may be necessary, but hand therapy always helps. After the joint is immobilized for several weeks, a therapist will help restore motion, then function, and finally strength.

“We (focus on) small movements,” Van Wieren said. “And we make sure the rest of the joints in the hand don’t lose function and movement.”

Without treatment, a patient may have chronic instability and pain, even in simple activities.

To reduce your risk of this injury, choose ski poles without straps. And, if you do fall, let go of your pole immediately.

Fractured wrist: Any time you fall, it’s an instinct to put your hand out to catch yourself, but the force can be too much for one or both of the bones in the wrist.

“Wrist fractures, I’d say, are the most problematic winter injury because they affect everyone from kids playing in the snow banks, to people walking into work and slipping and falling, to snowboarders,” Van Wieren said.

A fractured wrist causes immediate pain, tenderness, bruising and swelling. Surgery is sometimes needed, and hand therapy helps restore motion and strength.

Though most falls can’t be prevented, it always helps to wear good snow boots and make sure your driveway is properly shoveled. Give yourself enough time to get where you’re going.

“We always see people fall when they’re in a rush,” Van Wieren said.

Though hand and arm injuries are often unavoidable, they are treatable. Address them quickly, and you’ll be back to enjoying your morning coffee in no time.

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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