HCN News & Notes

Don’t Risk Your Health Shoveling Snow This Winter

SPRINGFIELD — A wise physician once said, “don’t pick up a shovel after the age of 50,” especially if you lead a sedentary life. And it’s not a good idea for smokers or those with coronary artery disease, either.

“The tremendous upper-body exertion required for shoveling heavy snow, combined with cold temperatures, can set the stage for a heart attack while clearing your driveway or sidewalk,” said Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair, Emergency Department, Baystate Medical Center.

He noted that signs and symptoms of a heart attack include pressure or pain in the chest, arms, or neck; nausea; lightheadedness; sweating or feeling clammy; or unusual fatigue.

Each year, about 100 people in the U.S., mostly men, die while shoveling snow or suffer a heart attack afterwards. Also, some 30,000 people are treated in hospital emergency rooms and other medical settings from doctor’s offices to clinics for injuries that occurred while exerting themselves over shoveling wet, heavy snow or chopping ice. Researchers have also found that those over 55 were more than four times as likely as younger patients to suffer heart-related problems while shoveling snow. Men were twice as likely as women to develop symptoms.

Even for those in good health, learning the proper techniques for shoveling snow can help prevent injuries.

“If you already suffer from low back pain and are not used to strenuous physical activity, then leave the snow shoveling for someone in good health and physical shape,” said Dr. Julio Martinez-Silvestrini, medical director, Baystate Rehabilitation Care.

For those who do pick up a shovel, he added, “take time to stretch your lower back muscles with some gentle exercises before shoveling and consider walking for a few minutes or marching in place. You should also drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration and refrain from any caffeine or nicotine, which are stimulants and may increase your heart rate.”

Martinez-Silvestrini and the American Physical Therapy Assoc. offer the following tips for avoiding back injuries from snow shoveling:

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

• Because the spine cannot tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements, it is important to avoid this movement as much as possible. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the lower back from twisting. This will help avoid the next-day back fatigue experienced by people who shovel snow.

• If possible, push the snow away instead of lifting it.

• Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back.

• Standing, backward-bending 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 backward slightly for several seconds.

Martinez-Silvestrini noted that there is sometimes confusion over whether to use ice or heat after injuring your back.

“Apply a cold pack as soon as possible after the injury every three to four hours for up to 20 minutes. After two or three days, you can apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes three or four times a day in order to relax your muscles and increase blood flow,” he said.

Unfortunately, for some, not all injuries are simple strains.

Baystate Medical Center’s Division of Neurosurgery sees many patients in the wintertime who suffer from herniated discs, which are common to the lower spine. When a disc is herniated or ruptured, it can create pressure against one or more of the spinal nerves, resulting in numbness or pain in the lower extremities, often radiating down the leg. Neurosurgeons also see many spinal fractures when people slip while shoveling snow or chopping ice.

To avoid slipping on ice and snow, doctors recommend buying a pair of shoes or boots with good traction or adding snow- and ice-safety traction devices to your footwear.

If possible, use a snowblower to do the work for you. If not used correctly, however, even using a snowblower can strain or injure your back if you push or force the equipment to go faster. And using a snowblower may still be too much activity for someone with heart disease. Snowblowers aren’t light, and it can be heavy to push through a lot of snow.

For some, the best advice may be to leave the shoveling to others by hiring a youngster who wants to make extra money or contracting with a plowing service to clear your driveway and walkways when it snows. 

“You know your body better than anyone else,” Schmidt said. “If something doesn’t feel right while you’re outdoors shoveling, then stop immediately.”