Emergency Room Physician Offers Healthy Tips for Winter Shoveling

WARE — Winter brings cold weather, snow, and a host of injuries that are common with the season. Shoveling during winter temperatures poses unique health risks, including back injuries, strains, and, more seriously, the risk of a heart attack.

To help people have a healthy and safe season and avoid injuries, Dr. Richard Gerstein, medical director of Emergency Services at Baystate Mary Lane Hospital, offers the following shoveling 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. A smaller blade will require you to lift less snow, putting less strain on your body. Begin by 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.

In addition, “if you are not shoveling but using a snowblower, it is a terrific piece of machinery, but if it’s not used correctly, you can strain or injure your back,” Gerstein said. “Snowblowers are designed to remove snow at a particular rate of speed. Do not push or force the equipment to go faster, but let it do the work for you.

Also, “if the snowblower clogs with ice, the blade may stop turning, but the engine may not shut off,” said Gerstein. “Reaching inside the blades can cause damage to hands and fingers when the blades start turning.

“Most importantly, listen to your body, and stop if you feel pain of any kind,” he continued. “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.”