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Tips For Injury Prevention While Snow Shoveling

It happens every winter in the Northeast, snowfalls, usually leaving heavy piles of snow and ice to clear from sidewalks and driveways. The extremely cold and fluffy start to 2009 has confirmed weather expert predictions of a colder than normal winter with heavier snowfalls. Physical Therapists and medical experts alike are concerned about reducing the number of injuries that may occur from shoveling snow.

The Good News: 15 minutes of snow shoveling is equivalent to Moderate Physical Activity according to the 1996 Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health. Seemingly not a bad thing as we are urged to engage in about 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on a daily basis. If you are trying to loose weight or burn some calories, snow shoveling is extremely efficient and requires your whole body to participate. With proper pacing and lifting of appropriate loads, one can truly turn 15 to 30 minutes of shoveling into a fantastic workout.

The Bad News: In 2006, the US Consumer Products Safety Commission reported 31,000 people were treated in the hospital emergency rooms, MD offices, clinics or other medical settings for injuries that occurred while removing snow manually.

Snow shoveling is a repetitive activity that can cause muscle strain to the lower back and shoulders, especially if a person is out of condition and does not lift properly, says Michael T. Cibulka, PT, MHS, OCS, president of American Physical Therapy Association’s Orthopaedic Section. In fact, back injuries due to snow shoveling can happen to anyone, not just older adults. People between the ages of 20 and 50 are generally more likely than older individuals to injure their backs because they may or may not be aware that they are out of condition.

Consider the following before you grab your shovel after a snowfall:

  • Warm-up! Before shoveling begins, take 10 minutes to warm-up by walking or marching in place. Stretch out your arms and legs. Warm muscles work more efficiently and are less likely to be injured.

  • Wear boots that have sufficient tread allowing you to maintain your grasp to the surface beneath you. Sudden slips and loss of balance may lead to severe strains in the lower back.

  • If possible, wait until the afternoon to shovel. Many disc injuries occur in the morning when there is increased fluid pressure in the disc.

  • Lift smaller loads of snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. Take care to bend your knees and lift with your legs rather than with your back.

  • Use a shovel with a shaft that lets you keep your back straight while lifting. A short shaft will cause you to bend more to lift the load. Using a shovel that’s too long makes the weight at the end heavier.

  • It is important to avoid excessive twisting and forward bending. Instead, you should bend your knees and keep your back as straight as possible so you are lifting with your legs. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the low back from twisting.

  • Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back. Standing extension exercises will help reverse the excessive forward bending that occurs while shoveling: Stand straight and tall, place your hands toward the back of your hips and bend backwards slightly for several seconds. Repeat as often as needed.

  • Listen to your body! Stop if you feel pain or are short of breath.

With proper precautions and the correct snow-shoveling technique, injuries to the shoulders and lower back can be avoided.

Remember, the physical demand from moderate physical activity increases for anyone with a history of heart attacks, heart disease, smokers and individuals whom lead a sedentary lifestyle. Consult your family physician prior to engaging in such activity.

If you or someone you know has back pain, consult your physician and/or a licensed physical therapist. Physical therapists, or PTs, have a unique body of knowledge that promotes optimal health and function through the application of scientific principles to prevent, identify, assess, correct, and alleviate acute or prolonged spine and extremity pain.

Tips from the Experts

Tips from the Experts


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