Baystate Mary Lane Doctor Offers Tips for Smart, Safe Snow Removal

WARE — With winter now upon us, soon many will be shoveling snow to clear their sidewalks and driveways. While most people recognize that snow shoveling is very hard work and can put severe stress on the heart, fewer people recognize the stress and strain that it also places on the back.

“According to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, an estimated 5,740 emergency-room visits occur nationwide every year as a result of snow-related injuries,” said Dr. Richard Gerstein, Chair of Emergency Medicine at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital.

To help people have a healthy and safe season and avoid injuries, Gerstein offers the following snow-removal safety tips:

  • If you are inactive and have a history of heart trouble, talk to your doctor before you take on the task of shoveling snow.
  • Avoid caffeine or nicotine before beginning. These are stimulants, which may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict. This places extra stress on the heart.
  • Drink plenty of water. Dehydration is just as big an issue in cold winter months as it is in the summer.
  • Be sure your muscles are warm before you start shoveling. Cold, tight muscles are more likely to sprain or strain than warm, relaxed muscles. Warm up your muscles before shoveling by walking for a few minutes or marching in place. Stretch the muscles in your arms and legs, because warm muscles will work more efficiently and be less likely to be injured.
  • Pick the right shovel for you. A smaller blade will require you to lift less snow, putting less strain on your body. Begin shoveling slowly to avoid placing a sudden demand on your heart. Pace yourself, and take breaks as needed.
  • Protect your back from injury by lifting correctly. Stand with your feet about hip width for balance, and keep the shovel close to your body. Bend from the knees (not the back), and tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow. Avoid twisting movements.
  • A snowblower is a great piece of machinery, “but if it’s not used correctly, you can strain or injure your back,” notes Gerstein.

“Snowblowers are designed to remove snow at a particular rate of speed. Do not push or force the equipment to go faster; let it do the work for you,” he added. Also, “if the snowblower clogs with ice, the blade may stop turning, but the engine may not shut off. Reaching inside the blades can cause damage to hands and fingers when the blades start turning. Also, stay away from the engine. It can become very hot and burn unprotected flesh.”

Most importantly, he said, “listen to your body, and stop if you feel pain of any kind. If you experience an injury or symptoms such as chest pain; shoulder, neck, or arm pain; shortness of breath; dizziness; fainting; sweating; or nausea, even if it temporally subsides, come immediately to the emergency room to be evaluated.”