Keep Your Feet Healthy This Winter
It’s that time of year again. The snow will be falling soon, and the temperature will too. Historically, December and January are the coldest months of the year, so without proper winter foot protection, any outdoor activity can pose a potential health risk. Fortunately, using some common sense and taking simple precautions can help avoid many of the more serious cold-related foot issues and winter sports injuries.
In conditions of prolonged cold exposure, your body sends signals to the blood vessels in your legs and feet telling them to constrict in order to preserve blood flow to your vital organs. This helps the body prevent a further decrease in internal body temperature by exposing less blood to the cold. As this happens, your toes and fingers become colder and colder, eventually leading to injury of the involved tissues.
In mild cases, where the exposure is limited, swelling and redness on the tips of the toes may be seen. If the area remains chilled, then numbness, tingling, itching and pain can also occur. With increasing exposure to cold, frostbite may occur to the point that regions of tissue will appear white and frozen. After prolonged exposure, the deeper tissues may become injured, and eventually all sensation is lost. Frostbite is a serious condition, and anyone who develops symptoms should seek professional medical treatment immediately in order to prevent infection, gangrene, and possible amputation.
Obviously, anyone who spends much of their day working (or playing) outdoors during the coldest months of the year is more likely to develop problems. People who have diabetes or circulatory disorders are at increased risk of developing cold-related injuries. Also, if you have had a previous cold injury, the chances of developing another injury to same tissue are increased.
For some people, the temperature does not have to drop that far in order for an injury to occur. A condition known as Raynaud’s phenomenon can cause excessive constriction, or spasm, of the blood vessels in the toes and fingers, even with modest exposure to cold. Patients with this condition will notice that toes suddenly turn white, then blue, becoming cool to the touch and eventually numb. As the attack subsides, usually in a warmer setting, the areas will flush a deep red and may tingle, throb or itch. Raynaud’s phenomenon can be related to other medical conditions, so if you have any of these symptoms consult with a physician.
To avoid problems with your feet and keep them healthy and ready for action this winter, choose your footwear wisely. Make sure your boots fit properly; you should be able to wiggle your toes, but the boots should immobilize the heel, instep, and ball of your foot. You can use orthotics (support devices that go inside shoes) to help control the foot’s movement inside ski boots, snowboard boots, or ice skates.
If you’re a committed runner, don’t let the cold stop you. A variety of warm, lightweight, moisture-wicking activewear and footwear available at most running or sporting goods stores can help ensure you stay warm and dry in bitter temperatures. Some runners may compensate for icy conditions by altering how their foot strikes the ground. Instead of changing your foot-strike pattern, shorten your stride to help maintain stability. And remember, it’s more important than ever to warm up before your run, and then cool down and stretch afterward.
Boots are a must-have footwear in winter climates, especially when dealing with winter precipitation. Between the waterproof material of the boots themselves and the warm socks you wear to keep toes toasty, you may find your feet sweat a lot. Damp, sweaty feet can chill more easily and are more prone to bacterial infections. Use of moisture-wicking, synthetic socks, and absorbent foot powders help prevent problems. Also, be “size smart.” It may be tempting to buy pricey, specialty footwear (like winter boots or ski boots) for kids in a slightly larger size, thinking they’ll be able to get two seasons of wear out of them. But unlike coats that kids can grow into, footwear needs to fit properly right away. Properly-fitted skates and boots can help prevent blisters, chafing, and ankle or foot injuries. Likewise, if socks are too small, they can force toes to bunch together, and that friction can cause painful blisters or corns.
Finally—and although this one seems like it should go without saying, it bears spelling out—don’t try to tip-toe through winter snow, ice, and temperatures in summer-appropriate footwear. We’ll still see folks running around in sneakers, sandals, and even flip-flops during the severe cold that is likely to hit in December and January. Choose winter footwear wisely and take some simple precautions to keep your feet warm, dry, and healthy this winter.