How to Protect Your Back When Shoveling Snow

Man shoveling snow

By Dr. Peter Abaci

Got snow?

As most of the country is suffering from bitter cold right now, that probably means many of you are looking out your windows at snow, sleet, and ice and wondering if you should go out and start shoveling. Think through this carefully before you run out there with good intentions and a hearty shovel in tow. Each year, shoveling snow is a major source of injuries and health problems like heart attacks, and it leads to tens of thousands of doctor visits every winter. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 16,500 patients are treated in emergency rooms each year for injuries sustained while shoveling snow or removing ice. That includes everything from back injuries to fractures, head injuries, and life-threatening heart problems.

Yes, shoveling snow can be hazardous to your health for a number of reasons. First of all, it should be considered moderately intensive exercise for most, and you need to have a certain fitness level to tolerate the work without injury. Somebody who is overly sedentary may not be cut out for snow removal. Another issue is working around snow and ice creates a fall risk, and even the very physically fit can slip and fall on something slippery and break something or sustain a head injury. A third concern is that cold mornings can be a particularly stressful time on the heart, so those with heart issues may be putting themselves at greater risk with such activity.

Low back injuries appear to be the most common shoveling-related complaint that patients report. Here are some tips to help prevent back pain if you find yourself in need of shoveling the snow obstructing your driveway:

  • Warm-up your muscles before you go outside and try not to walk out there stiff. Go up and down the stairs a few times, do a few jumping jacks, or jog in place for a minute to get the blood circulating to your muscles.
  • The ergonomics of your shovel may matter. A bend in the pole of your shovel may reduce the chance of tweaking your lower back. Try to use a lighter-weight shovel if possible.
  • Wear the right shoes and be mindful of where you plant your feet to avoid slips and falls.
  • When shoveling, bend the knees and push from the legs, not the low back.
  • Shoveling less snow per cycle decreases the force you have to push against and will put less stress on your muscles.
  • Avoid twisting or excessive reaching when shoveling. Think about tightening your core muscles by imagining a zipper pulling your waist together when pushing or lifting.
  • Keep track of time or use a timer so you take regular breaks. If you normally need to take a break after 20 minutes of moderate exercise, then it stands to reason that you need to do the same when shoveling snow.

Here’s wishing you a safe and painless New Year!

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