Mother Nature’s winter gift of snow offers a seasonal reminder of how hard removing snow can be on our backs. Even snow-country veterans encounter record-breaking amounts snow and it is no small chore to take on. “When we take out our snow shovels,” say Dr. Kaliq Chang, “we also need to consider the phrase, ‘Watch your back.’ Every year, thousands of people get hurt clearing snow and quite often it is a strain or injury to the back.”
Emergency departments see close to 12,000 snow-shovel-related injuries a year, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reports. Add in visits to doctors’ offices and clinics, and that number jumps to more than 150,000, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Heart health, understandably, gets a great deal of attention also. “Certainly, we want to prevent heart attacks,” Dr. Chang emphasizes. “But it’s also important that people realize that most snow-shoveling injuries are musculoskeletal, with the lower back being affected the most.”
Back awareness is especially important given the toll such injuries take. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that eighty percent of adults will experience lower back pain. Lower back pain and injury additionally contributes to disability and missed work.
Shoveling snow brings on a perfect storm of factors that can trigger back problems; intense upper-body exertion in cold temperatures on insecure surfaces.
“Regardless of age or strength,” notes Dr. Chang, “we’re all susceptible to overdoing it and hurting our backs when we shovel snow. Being aware and taking precautions can ensure both that our walkways are clear and that our backs stay healthy.”
To prevent back injuries while shoveling snow, Dr. Chang offers the following advice:
5 Tips to Protect Your Back While You Shovel
1.Treat shoveling like a workout: “Athletes prepare their bodies for intense exercise,” points out Dr. Chang, “which is what shoveling snow is. It’s really important to take time – say ten minutes – to warm up before starting to shovel. Also, once started, we need to pace ourselves, hydrate, and take breaks. Clearing snow is not a routine chore like taking out the garbage.”
2. Use the right equipment: “Not all shovels are created equal,” notes Dr. Chang. “We need to select a shovel that fits our body in terms of our height and hands. It should be strong but not too heavy, as well as suited to properly moving snow. Just because something is labeled ‘ergonomic’ doesn’t make it so, so it makes sense to check reviews and choose carefully. We also need to dress properly: breathable layers that can regulate temperature, as well as safe footwear to prevent falls.”
3. Use the right technique: “Snow can be very heavy,” says Dr. Chang. “As much as possible we want to push it out of the way, not lift it. If lifting is necessary, we need to be careful: You want to keep your back straight and avoid bending at the waist. Instead, squat with your knees bent and your legs apart. Keep loads small and carry the snow to deposit it: Absolutely no reaching, twisting or throwing of loads, which puts strain on our backs.”
4. Get started early: “We shouldn’t wait for the storm to end to get out our shovels,” says Dr. Chang. “Regularly clearing snow as it accumulates keeps the amount we’re moving manageable, as well as hopefully keeping the surface we’re on safer.”
5. Know your limits: “Plenty of people protect their backs from shoveling by having someone else do the job,” observes Dr. Chang. “Those with a history of back problems should consider getting assistance.”
“In some areas, snow removal is a regular part of winter,” Dr. Chang concludes. “It makes sense to have a plan so that it doesn’t hurt our health.”