With temperatures dropping and a chill in the air, the snow falls yet again. While many people look forward to the season’s snow, many more of us dread having to shovel it away. Let’s face it…shoveling snow is hard work! And if not done correctly, it can put severe strain on the back.
“People need to be very careful when shoveling snow,” explains Dr. Jeff Winternheimer, founder of the Illinois Back Institute with 5 locations throughout Chicagoland (Wheaton, Countryside, Berwyn, Arlington Heights and Orland Park). “While most people recognize the tremendous stress that shoveling snow can place on the heart, what they may not realize is the amount of stress and strain that it can cause to the back,” he adds.
“It’s not surprising that thousands of people injure their backs each and every year while shoveling snow,” he continues. “During the winter season, I’ve seen everything from basic muscle fatigue and low back strain to vertebral disc damage and even spinal fractures,” he says. “But, with proper preparation and a few easy tips, shoveling snow can be a very healthy, fun, and safe form of winter exercise.”
The following suggestions from Dr. Jeff are sure to help.
Dress for Success
Make sure you are dressed appropriately for the weather with layered clothing that is non-restricting and easy to move in. Also, consider wearing a hat. A great deal of body heat is lost through the head, so a hat is a must. If it’s icy cold, breathing through a scarf will help. And, don’t forget the importance of proper boots, which are not only essential for keeping your feet warm and dry, but the soles provide good traction, which will help with your balance.
Don’t Forget the Gloves
Not only do you need to wear gloves to keep your hands warm, but gloves with vinyl or leather on the palms and fingers will help you form a tighter grip on the shovel’s handle so it doesn’t slip. Thick gloves will also help protect your hands from calluses and blisters while shoveling.
Like any exercise, it’s important to warm up. Before digging into the snow, try a few jumping jacks. Or, take a few minutes to jog or march in place to get the blood flowing and the muscles warm. As we all know, warm relaxed muscles work much more efficiently than cold tight ones; and are less likely to be injured.
Using the right shovel can save your back from injury or pain. Be sure that your shovel is lightweight and has a curved handle (like the new ergonomic ones), which allows you to keep your back straighter when shoveling. Also, make sure that it’s not too tall (resulting in an awkward grip) or too small (causing you to bend over). I believe that a smaller blade is better than a larger blade. Although a small blade can't shovel as much snow, it avoids the risk of trying to pick up too heavy a load with a larger one.
When shoveling, you need to take frequent breaks and pace yourself. Stand up straight, stretch your back and roll your shoulders a few times to release the tension. Pace yourself. There’s no need to shovel the entire driveway and sidewalk at one time.
Be sure to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after shoveling snow. Like jogging, riding a bike, or a work-out in the gym, snow shoveling is exercise, so staying hydrated is important. Avoid caffeinated drinks, as they cause dehydration, which will make you more likely to experience aches, pains and other discomfort after shoveling.
Use Your Legs
When shoveling, make sure you are lowering yourself with your legs and not bending forward towad the snow with your back. Doing so will help avoid added pressure on your spine.
Any repetitive motion for a long period of time is sure to cause soreness. To lessen the chance of experiencing back pain while shoveling, alternate between tossing the snow to your right and tossing it to your left. Also, try changing hand grips so that if the shovel is to your right, leading with the left arm; change it to the left side, leading with your right arm.
Speaking of Grip
Speaking of grip, don’t place your hands too close to one another. Create some distance between your hands (about 12 inches or so), which gives you more leverage and makes it easier to lift the snow.
Whenever possible remember to push the snow instead of lifting it. Pushing puts far less strain on the spine than lifting. But, if you must lift, protect your back from injury by doing so correctly. Begin by standing with your feet about hip width for balance and keeping the shovel close to your body. Bend from the knees (not the back) and tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow, avoiding any twisting movements.
Once you have picked up the snow, turn your whole body and face the direction you want to toss the snow. By doing so, you are tossing the snow in a straight forward way, completely taking out the torso rotation and saving your back. NEVER twist to throw the snow to the side, and never throw it over your shoulder! It’s very important to walk to where you want to dump the snow. Holding a shovelful of snow with your arms outstretched puts too much pressure on the spine.
Listen to Your Body
Stop IMMEDIATELY when you feel any sort of pain or shortness of breath. With snow shoveling, especially, you’ve got to listen to your body and know your limitations.
Take a Hot Shower
When you’re done shoveling, take a hot shower and stretch while under the hot water. Doing so will help relax the muscles and it will lessen the chance of any aches and pains later on.