By: Dr. Rebecca Van Heuklon, DPT, FAFS, FMR
Welcome to Wisconsin, where it isn’t uncommon to have Mother Nature drop 1-2 inches of snowfall per hour. Unless you own a snow removal business or live in Paradise, Washington, known for being one of the snowiest places on earth, shoveling isn’t something that our bodies are used to doing on a regular basis. For that reason, it is common for people to experience muscle soreness and general aches and pains after shoveling; however, there can also be more serious injuries that can occur when we stress our bodies past their normal limits.
One study found that there are an average of 11,500 injuries and medical emergencies treated in emergency departments resulting from snow shoveling in the United States each year.¹ Some of the most common orthopedic injuries that can occur include back injuries, muscle strains, hernias, rotator cuff tears, biceps ruptures, and broken bones from falling.
Although orthopedic injuries can be very debilitating, more serious complications like heart attacks can also occur. Heart attacks are related to snow shoveling for several reasons. Shoveling requires considerable use of the upper extremities, which causes a substantial increase in heart rate and blood pressure, much more than walking or biking would cause. Also, the cold air outside causes the blood vessels to narrow and causes constriction of the airway, limiting the amount of oxygen that can get to the heart. One Canadian study found a significant correlation between substantial snow falls and heart attacks occurring the following day, especially in men over 55 years old. ² To avoid injuries and other health complications from shoveling, follow these tips to help keep you healthy and safe throughout the snow season.
1. Do a warm up or light stretching before you start shoveling. When your muscles are cold and tight, they are more likely to be injured or strained than when they are properly warmed up and flexible. Get your heart rate up some by walking up and down the stairs, marching in place, or taking a brisk walk. You can then warm up your joints and muscles by doing some squats at your kitechn counter to loosen up your hips, knees, and ankles. You can also do some arm reaches down forward in front of you and also backwards and sideways overhead to help loosen up your spine and turn on your core muscles. By doing a light warm-up before you start shoveling, your body will be better prepared.
2. Make sure your feet are stable underneath you to prevent falls. If there is a slant to your sidewalk or driveway or shallow holes, it is possible for water to pool and ice to form under the snow, which can become a slipping hazard. Be aware of these areas and make sure you have good footing when you push or lift the snow.
3. It is better to push the snow than to try to lift it on your shovel when possible. If you have the option to push the snow to the end of the sidewalk/driveway, opt for that rather than lifting the snow and trying to throw it from a distance.
4. If you have to lift and throw the snow, bend your hips and knees and lift using your legs. Avoid flexing your spine! Loading into your leg muscles means less strain on your back, neck and shoulders.
5. Don’t overload your shovel. Opt for small loads of snow on your shovel if you have to lift and throw it. Smaller load equals less weight and less likely to result in back injuries or hernias.
6. Go out often to limit the amount of snow that builds up. If 6+ inches of snow are in the forecast, go out to shovel a couple of times throughout the day to minimize how much snow you have to deal with at one time.
7. Choose the most appropriate type of shovel for the task at hand. Ergonomic shovels, which have a bent handle, are mechanically designed to ease your back with pushing snow; however, they are not the best design for lifting and throwing snow, which is better accomplished with using a straight-handled shovel.
8. Don’t overexert your body. Take frequent breaks when your body tells you it needs one. Listen to your body with any signs of joint/muscle pain, dizziness, shortness of breath, or chest pain. Also, don’t be in a hurry. Unfortunately, it is common to go out to shovel in the morning when we need to finish quickly in order to get to work or get the kids to school; however, this tight time frame could make you push your body past its limits. Give yourself plenty of time to do the job safely.
9. Stay in good cardiovascular conditioning throughout the rest of the year. The better conditioned you are in general, the less stress your body will experience. This can also be the case with strength training. Each shovel-full of snow can weigh anywhere between 5-20 pounds depending on how wet the snow is! That is a lot of lifting your body doesn’t normally do if you don’t do any resistance or strengthening exercises throughout the rest of the year.
10. If you don’t feel safe enough to shovel, then don’t. If you have a balance issue, a heart condition, known coronary artery disease, or an orthopedic problem that might make it unsafe or unwise to shovel, enlist a neighbor or contract with a company to come in and take care of the snow for you.
If you do experience an injury from shoveling that doesn’t improve with a week of resting and icing, contact MotionWorks at 920-215-2050 for an evaluation or complementary injury screening.
1. Watson DS, Shields BJ, Smith GA. Snow shovel-related injuries and medical emergencies treated in US EDs, 1990 to 2006. Am J Emerg Med. 2001; 29(1): 11-17.
2. Aguer N, Potter BJ, Margiassi A, Bilodeau-Bertrand M, Paris C, Kosatsky T. Association between quantity and duration of snowfall and risk of myocardial infarction. CMAJ. 2017; 189(6): 235-242.