This past Saturday was the first day of regular firearms deer season. It is considered to be a holiday in the state of Pennsylvania as approximately, 750,000 hunters from age 12 to seniors (including myself) will hike through the woods in search of a whitetail.
I am a whitetail, turkey, small game hunter, and an avid outdoors enthusiast with great passion for mountain biking, kayaking, whitewater rafting, hiking and mountain climbing in our state and national parks. After an extended period of time away from hunting (in the off season), I am eager to be back in the woods. When possible, I try to make time to shed hunt and scout in preparation for the upcoming season. While I am active during the summer, I am not necessarily in “hunting shape” and certainly not acclimated to cold, wet and windy conditions. With this in mind, I offer health and safety tips for hunters based on the knowledge of experts in the field and my expertise as a health care provider. Good luck and be safe!
Common Health Problems for Hunters:
- Chest Pain/Shortness of Breath – overweight and deconditioned people must be very careful when overexerting themselves in the woods while hunting. This is especially true for those with a history of heart disease. Make sure you take your medication and drink plenty of fluids 24 hours before and while hunting. Eat a good breakfast with a balance of protein and carbohydrates. A bagel with peanut butter is a good quick start. Pack healthy snacks and water to sustain you.
- Knee Pain- in the front of the knee or knee cap is common with hunting. This can happen from excessive hiking on uneven or hilly terrain in the woods, especially if there is weakness in the leg muscles. When walking down hills try this simple trick to keep your knees safe. Slightly bend at the knees and bring your buttock back so your knees stay over (or slightly behind) your toes to reduce stress on the joint.
- Neck, Lower or Middle Back Pain- can be caused by prolonged hiking with a heavy load or prolonged sitting in a tree stand in slouched positions, especially if one has tight hamstrings. Field dressing and carrying the deer out of the woods is also very stressful on the back. Take multiple breaks and stretch backwards, (the opposite direction of bending over to drag the deer). Also, consider where you want to position your hunt, avoid large hills that you may have to drag the deer up on the way out.
- Shoulder Pain- can occur from recoil of a gun shot or the overhead activity of climbing a tree.
- Hamstring Pain- can occur if the muscle is tight or weak. Prolonged walking, bending over and large steps over fallen trees can contribute to this problem. When free walking in the woods, look for the path of least resistance.
- Ilio-Tibial Band Pain- when walking on the side of a hill there is a difference in the length of the legs. Overtime, this can lead to pain on the outside of the hip and leg.
- Foot Numbness or Pain- can occur from prolonged squatting or poor fitting shoes/boots. However, lower back pain can also be associated with these symptoms.
- Hand Numbness or Pain- can be caused by repeated recoil of the gun on the shoulder. Also, this may be associated with prolonged pressure of a shoulder strap or leaning on something under the arm.
Preparing Your Body for Hunting
- Prevention is the best management of most musculoskeletal and safety problems associated with hunting. First, one can prevent many of the above problems through proper fitting of equipment, clothing and shoes/boots.
- Fitness - Be sure to maintain a fairly good fitness level in order to hunt safely. Begin an exercise and walking program 2-3 months before hunting season. If you are a beginner, start slowly. Warm up and slowly walk for 10 to 15 minutes and build up over time. Slowly add hills to your walking program.
- Clothing - Wear your hunting clothing, such as boots to break them in while walking for exercise. Drytech clothing instead of cotton can keep you warm and wick moisture away from the body.
- Move & Stretch - As hunters, we sit in our stand or blind and stay still for long periods of time in cold temperatures. This results in a cold and stiff body. When leaving your setup, give you body time to wake up before you start hiking out. Bend the knees or perform small squats repeatedly to get blood and warmth back into the legs. Stretch your spine backwards (the opposite of sitting) to prepare your spine for your heavy pack and do some heel raises for the ankles.
- Strength Exercises - Work on the strength and flexibility of the quadriceps, calf and gluteal muscles. Instead of using the elevator, climb stairs throughout the day to work these muscles. Be careful not to progress too quickly because a drastic change from inactivity to over activity in a short period of time can create problems.
- Be Aware - Know your limitations and adapt to them. Injuries most commonly occur when we overestimate what our body can do or choose to push through pain. Listen to your body, if you have pain, stop and modify your activity. In addition, scout areas that are more easily accessibly in the woods that will still attract deer. This will lead to less stress on your body and when successful, you have an easier drag!
- Use technology to your advantage. Using hunting apps and maps such as HuntWise, OnX or HuntStand, can help give you an idea of the terrain you will be exposed to prior to entering the woods. It will be easier to map out a less strenuous approach into the woods and minimize the load you place on your body.
- Remember, hunting should be fun! Pain from poorly fitted and improperly maintained equipment and clothing can be avoided with good planning. Moreover, injury and death from inactivity and poor fitness is also preventable.
Guest Author: Paul Mackarey, Jr. PT, DPT is clinic director and partner at Mackarey & Mackarey Physical Therapy Consultants, Scranton and Clarks Summit, PA.
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Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.