Decorating for the Holidays? Doctors Share Tips on How to Avoid a Trip to the ER.

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December 15, 2020


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Here in South Florida and around the country, emergency departments see a notable increase in falls, back strains and other injuries during the holidays. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, injuries sustained while decorating account for some 15,000 trips a year to the ER.

Resource spoke recently with two experts from Miami Neuroscience Institute, a part of Baptist Health South Florida:

Jose Andres Restrepo, M.D.

Jose Andres Restrepo, M.D., medical director for outpatient rehabilitation, specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, electrodiagnosis, regenerative medicine and musculoskeletal conditions including arthritis.

Raul A. Vasquez-Castellanos, M.D.

Raul A. Vasquez-Castellanos, M.D., neurosurgeon and director of complex spine surgery, specializing in the surgical treatment of complex spinal conditions including tumors, degenerative spine diseases, spinal deformities, scoliosis, kyphoscoliosis and neurotrauma.

We asked Drs. Restrepo and Vasquez for their thoughts on how you can prevent the most common holiday injuries – and avoid the ER this holiday season.

Resource: In general, regardless of the season, what are the most common types of injuries you treat in your practice?

Dr. Vasquez: We see a lot of people who come in with nerve impingement, herniated disk, disk degeneration, chronic back pain, and simple spine fractures. Most of these result from falls or lifting heavy things. But I think it also has something to do with the fact that we live in an area with an aging population, at a time when people are living longer. As we age, our flexibility, balance and reaction times all start diminishing. We need to be mindful of our body and what it’s actually capable of doing.

Resource: What kind of injuries are you seeing now, as people decorate for the holidays?

Dr. Restrepo: So far this holiday season, we’ve seen a 10 to 15 percent increase in patients with back injuries. Most of these have been a result of decorating one’s home for the holidays – moving heavy furniture and boxes, falling off ladders and performing various other activities required for the job. We’ve had patients complaining of everything from neck pain from looking up for long periods; back pain from bending over and lifting; hand and wrist pain from grappling with hammers, screwdrivers and other tools; ankle sprains from falling off ladders; knee sprains from awkward rotation of the knee, and bursitis of the knee from kneeling on hard surfaces for too long.

One patient came in with a back sprain and lacerations on his back. He was on a ladder stringing holiday lights along the eaves of his house, unspooling the lights he had wrapped around himself as he worked his way along the eaves. At some point he slipped and fell into the bushes below but, fortunately, his fall was broken somewhat by the lights he had wrapped around himself and the ones he had just strung around the chimney. Otherwise, his injuries might have been much worse.

Resource: Are you seeing anything different this year with holiday injuries because of the pandemic?

Dr. Vasquez: We are. What is common now, it seems – especially with this second surge we’re seeing now – is people are injuring themselves at home but reluctant to go to the ER because they’re concerned about exposure to the coronavirus. I can tell you that our facilities are perhaps the cleanest, safest spaces anywhere – far more so than your local grocery store. Remember that delaying care is aggravating an existing injury. By not seeking treatment, you could possibly wind up with permanent weakness and long-term, chronic back pain. Is that a chance you want to take?

Resource: Dr. Vasquez, what recommendations do you have for avoiding injuries during the holidays?

Dr. Vasquez: 

  • You should be doing daily balance, stretching and core-strengthening exercises – not just during the holidays but all year long.
  • Recognize your body’s limitations – don’t attempt something beyond your abilities.
  • Avoid heavy lifting – tree, boxes, ladders and other objects.
  • Avoid bending over from the waist to pick up a heavy object; instead, keep your back straight, squat and lift with your legs.
  • Wear a corset-style back brace when lifting extra-heavy items.
  • Avoid getting up on a ladder or the roof without someone to help support you.
  • Don’t skimp when it comes to safety – if needed, get help from a professional handyman or electrician who has the equipment and experience to get the job done.
  • Enjoy the holidays with your family but be safe!

Resource: And Dr. Restrepo, what about you…what advice can you offer that would help people avoid the ER during the holidays?

Dr. Restrepo:

  • Always stretch before and after any physical activity to loosen your muscles. Don’t underestimate the task ahead of you! Decorating involves a lot of physical activity.
  • When lifting heaving items, lift with your legs, not your back. The average weight of a 6.5′ to 8′ Christmas tree is 50 to 70 pounds.
  • When carrying packages, keep them close to your center of gravity (closer to your body). The closer to your spine and center of gravity, the less stress it puts on your back.
  • If you need to carry multiple items, it’s better to make several trips instead of trying to carry them all at once.
  • When using a ladder, always inspect the ladder before using it. And this is especially important: don’t climb the ladder without someone nearby.
  • Place the ladder on firm, level ground and, when you’re up on the ladder, don’t lean too far to one side.
  • Avoid, if possible, using decorations that are heavy, sharp or breakable.
  • If your decorating requires a lot of time and effort, build in some time for rest breaks.
  • If you do experience any pains or sprains, remember to “RICE” the injury (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) as much as possible, and take anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen to help with pain and swelling.

Resource: If somebody is injured, should they go to Urgent Care or the ER?

Dr. Vasquez:  If you suffer an acute injury from a fall, such as a broken back or broken arm, Baptist Health has Urgent Care and Urgent Care Express locations across South Florida, some of which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We also have a couple of freestanding emergency departments in West Coral Way and West Kendall, and of course, there are on-campus ERs at all of our hospitals across the region. Serious back injuries requiring specialized care will be referred to our team here at Miami Neuroscience Institute. If you need us, we’re here 24/7 to help care for you.

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