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Snow Shoveling Safety

It’s that time of year again, the snow is falling and accumulating, and it’s time to bust out the snow shovel.  Shoveling, when done incorrectly, can put a tremendous amount of stress on the lower back, as well as the heart and circulatory system.  First and foremost, you should make sure that you are healthy enough to shovel snow.  Heart health is of utmost importance when preparing for the task. People who have heart conditions should seek help when shoveling snow, especially the heavier snow accumulations.  The heavy snow coupled with the strenuous work can cause heart attacks in those predisposed to this condition.  Along with this, you should never eat, smoke, or drink a caffeinated beverage prior to shoveling.  These actions introduce stimulants into the body.  Stimulants constrict blood vessels and increase your blood pressure.  So make sure that you are healthy enough to shovel snow this winter season, and if you’re not, call someone to help.  There are local volunteers or helpful neighbors all around that would be willing to help clear your sidewalks and driveways.

I get a fair amount of patients that come in with acute lower back pain from shoveling every winter season, especially during heavy snowfalls.  The L5/S1 disc and vertebral segment is the most stressed segment during shoveling. This segment is the weakest link in the body segment chain.  Whenever stress is applied to any object, the point of weakest strength is where it’s going to create a problem.  Like the weakest link in a chain, prolonged stress and acute stress will seek out these areas. But don’t worry; there are techniques and practices that will prevent this from ever becoming an issue.  We will review some of these today, so you are better prepared for the tall task of clearing your driveway and sidewalk from all of that pesky snow.

Proper Preparation

Stretch Session

The best way to shovel snow is to develop a plan of attack and carry it out successfully, as is the case with any activity.  Prior to shoveling, you should always stretch your muscles and get your blood pumping.  Muscles, when cold and tight, are more likely to strain or sprain.  Warm, loosened up muscles, are more likely to complete the action that they are responsible for, and prevent injury.  So stretch your lower back and hamstrings to prevent this from happening. You can also march in place or walk around the house briskly to kick start your circulatory system (remember though, no stimulants!)

Another place of concern when shoveling snow is the shoulders and arms. There are a few techniques to loosen these areas up as well before you start to shovel.  One technique is the full body hug, which you could hold for 30-60 seconds at a time, with a few repetitions.  This will stretch the arm and shoulder muscles, as well as the shoulder joint itself, to properly prepare you for the shoveling motion.

Dress Do’s and Don’ts

Always dress for the occasion.  Be sure not to underdress.  As we mentioned before, tight muscles will easily sprain or strain and immediately cause a lower back issue.  Dress in layers.  As you are shoveling, you will generate heat and have to remove some layers so you don’t overheat.  To start, however, you want to conserve as much heat as you can.  So as you shovel and warm up, you can remove some of the outer layers of jackets or shirts and operate at an average temperature.  Overheating while shoveling can cause lightheadedness and circulatory stress, while overcooling could cause issues in the muscles.  So you want to find a point between the two where your body can operate at its best.  Always wear a snow hat as well.  There is a large amount of heat lost through the head, so keep that heat locked in and keep your ears warm.

Shovel Selection

Ergonomically designed shovels are great for saving your back.  Shovels with curved or adjustable handles can help you minimize the painful bending and lifting that standard shovels require.  These allow the back to be minimally arched and the knees minimally bent.  Standard shovels require more of these motions and can cause an injury to the lower back.

Plastic blades are more lightweight than the metal blades of standard shovels.  They make shovels now that are rigid plastic with a metal lip piece on the bottom to help with ice and tougher snow.  These are the ones that I would recommend getting.  The metal piece gives you the structural strength to bust up ice and dig up compacted snow, all while being lightweight enough to not strain the back.

Have a shovel that can push the snow for lighter snowfalls, and one that can push and lift the snow for heavier volumes.  It is recommended to have a shovel with a smaller blade as well to remove the snow bit by bit.  By not overloading the shovel and making it heavy, you can lift it a little easier and take it step by step.  Remove the snow in stages using a smaller shovel if there is a large volume of snow.  Take your time, and use the proper shovel for the job, and there won’t be any problems.

Trained Technique

Push the snow when at all possible, always.  Pushing the snow puts a minimal amount of stress on the lower back.  If you have to lift and move the snow, face the snow and make sure your shoulders and hips are both facing it squarely.  Then you could lift the snow, bending at the hips, not the back, and bending at the knees using your leg muscles to lift the snow.  Through all of this, you must keep your back as straight as possible and avoid any twisting motion with the lower back when the joints are loaded and you are lifting the snow.  Keeping your back straight allows the body to distribute the force of lifting the snow through the proper elements of the spine designed for these stresses and also maintains symmetry throughout the action to distribute the forces evenly through the spine.  Any time these forces become asymmetrical or favor one direction over another, injury is more likely to occur.

Leverage is important as well.  When shoveling, make sure your hands are at least 12 inches apart, with your non-dominant hand closer to the blade of the shovel.  The closer your hand is to the blade, the more evenly the load is distributed through the back, and through the arms and shoulders.  Never throw the snow over your shoulder.  You should always lift the snow, and, when possible, move it to where you want to put it and place it down with the shovel.  The throwing motion causes contraction of muscles at a rapid rate, and in cold conditions, it could cause muscle spasms and potentially serious back injuries.  When the snow is very heavy, it is best to chip away at the snow, layer by layer, and shovel it carefully, so as not to overload the back when lifting.

Always try to keep the load as close to the body as possible so that it is at your center of gravity.  This is the point where we are strongest.  When we extend ourselves or extend our arms out to reach with the snow, it throws the body off balance and creates an abnormal stress through the spine and could cause serious injury.

Ice control is important as well.  You need to have firm footing when shoveling, and while that can be hard in heavy snowfalls, you should always be sure to clear a path and then use ice melt or sand to create some friction between your feet and the ground.  If you are ever on ice or slippery footing, you could fall when trying to move the snow, and get seriously injured.  So always be sure to have a heathy amount of tread on your boots, and grip on the ice or snow so this doesn’t become an issue.

Solution: Snowblower

For heavy and even light accumulations of snow, the best way to remove them is with a snowblower.  Just be sure that you use it properly, and keep your core engaged when pushing the snowblower, if it is not self-propelled.



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