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When 'Fa La La' Becomes 'Fa La Ouch'! Preventing Pain and Injury While Hanging Christmas Lights

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It's official. Wintery window scenes are filling malls across America, and the Muzak® version of "Jingle Bells is already being piped into elevators. The holidays are upon us again. Soon we'll delight as beautiful, festive lights begin to pop up on houses in our communities. And while these often elaborate displays are sure to elicit joyful smiles in many, others will respond with anguished groans. I'm not talking about the sound you make when your neighbor has decided to emulate the light display in "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation." I'm referring to the real physical pain caused by injury to those actually tasked with hanging the lights.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a governmental agency formed to safeguard people from consumer-product related risks, an estimated 13,000 people were treated in emergency rooms around the country last year for injuries tied to holiday lights, Christmas trees, ornaments and other decorations. And beyond the inevitable falls from ladders or shocks from faulty wiring that account for emergency room visits, a far greater number of people end up straining their necks or backs, pulling muscles or aggravating existing conditions.

The process of hanging Christmas lights is a ritual that usually begins with the hunt for the box in one's garage, followed by the inevitable untangling, depending on your level of OCD, of course. Then you're up there on a ladder, either stringing lights along preexisting hooks under the eaves or hammering in new hooks to hold the lights. Over the course of several hours, you are up and down the ladder, repeatedly moving it, stepping back to see if you've done it all properly, and then, of course, testing the lights to get the distribution and colors just right. This process can be difficult, time consuming and--frankly--painful, killing any joy right along with it. In my many years of practice, I've seen an increase in patients with holiday-related aches, pains and injuries. For them, the "fa la la" is more like "fa la ouch", but it doesn't need to be! If you're unable to hire a local installer, here are some helpful tips to avoid the pain and injury associated with hanging holiday lights:

For some people, the repetitive motion of reaching overhead will simply cause fatigue of the shoulder muscles, upper back and neck muscles not used to such activity. Recommendation: Give yourself plenty of breaks, especially once you begin to experience symptoms. A brief break is often all you need to find the needed relief that allows you to continue.

Others come into the process with tight shoulder muscles and ligaments and simply don't have the normal range of motion in their shoulders. These people may find it difficult to reach as high as they once did, and mere stretching isn't enough to make the process any easier.

Recommendation: In situations like this, I ask my patients to reposition their ladders so they don't have to reach as high overhead but can rather reach up at an inclined angle. While this angle is easier on tight shoulder muscles, the reaching may still cause fatigue of the muscles, in which case the breaks suggested above will come in handy.

People with a history of neck problems and disc injuries in their necks may find that they experience neck pain when reaching overhead for a long time. Muscles in the upper back that help raise the arms overhead also compress the neck. This compression force can aggravate an active or chronic disc injury. The joints in the spine that its motion (facet joints) can cause pain in those looking up for extended periods, with even more significant discomfort if these joints are arthritic.

Recommendation: If possible, try to get help while hanging the Christmas lights so you can take turns and allow your neck to have a little bit of rest and less load.

Lastly, a small percentage of the population will experience numbness, tingling and fatigue in their arms while hanging lights. These symptoms may range from mild to severe, preventing some people from continuing altogether, with relief only possible while the sufferers' arms are down by their sides.

Recommendation: Because such symptoms could be a sign of a problem known as thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS), which is a compression of the nerves to the arm occurring on the side of the neck and upper chest, it's important to seek help from a health care practitioner with specific knowledge of TOS to determine the cause and best treatment plan.

All in all, the best way to prevent your holiday lighting experience from becoming a trip to the ER is to remember to take plenty of breaks and, if possible, get your family or friends to help.