Snow Shoveling and Protecting Your Back

TipsBack Health

Snow and ice present many dangers to those on the road, to those enjoying skiing, skating and other winter sports, and to those exposed to severe weather. But even those who never leave their driveways are subject to winter injuries, often from their attempts to clear the snow from those very driveways. Every winter, the common chore of snow removal fills emergency rooms and doctors' offices with people suffering varying degrees of back pain. “Shoveling snow, especially heavy, wet snow, is responsible for tens of thousands of back injuries each year,” says Kaliq Chang MD of Atlantic Spine Center. “The lower back is the most common site of injury, especially for those who don't exercise regularly or are out of shape. Fortunately, there are common-sense steps you can take to reduce your risk of injury.”

Muscle pain is the most common back injury sustained during snow removal. Bending, twisting, and carrying shovelfuls of heavy, wet snow strain the back muscles and can also cause more serious injury to the spine. Slips and falls also damage muscles and the spine. Dr. Chang recommends these precautions to help you clear snow safely and protect your back:

Warm up!

It's cold out! And chances are, your muscles haven't been thoroughly exercised recently. Muscles are more prone to injury when they are cold and tight than when they are warmed up and flexible. Warming up for five to ten minutes is one of the best things you can do to prevent injury. Get your circulation going by running up and down stairs, jogging in place, jumping jacks, or some other similar whole-body activity. Stretch your lower back and hamstrings (the large muscles in the back of the thigh) with some gentle stretching exercises. Windmill your arms forward and backward a few times.

Use the right shovel

All shovels are not created equal. The traditional snow shovel you've been retrieving from the basement every winter for ten years may be too short for you, forcing you to bend and twist repeatedly. It may also be heavy, adding extra weight to what might already be a 20-pound load of snow. Newer, ergonomic shovels are made of lighter materials like plastic or aluminum and have a contoured or adjustable handle that minimizes bending your back and knees.

Use proper shoveling technique

Start by pushing the snow as much as possible rather than lifting it. When you must lift, face the mound of snow squarely and avoid twisting. Bend at the knees, using your leg muscles to lift, not your back. Keep each load lighter by not overloading your shovel. If you do lift a full shovel, move one hand down as close as possible to the blade to give you better leverage, keeping the other hand on the handle. Walk to where you will deposit the snow and don't extend your arms to reach and don't toss. Don't twist your back to change direction. Instead, pivot your entire body.

Stay on your feet

Wear shoes or boots with good treads and spread sand, rock salt, or kitty litter on your sidewalk or driveway to increase traction and reduce the likelihood of slipping during snow removal.

Take it easy

It's easier to remove a light layer than to wait until the storm is over and you're facing a large, densely packed pile. If the snow is deep, take a light layer off the top rather than tackling the full depth. When shoveling, take a break every ten to fifteen minutes. Walk around, straighten your back, drink some water to stay hydrated. Listen to your body! At the first sign of lower back pain, discomfort, or shortness of breath, STOP!

Have you thought about a snow blower?

When used correctly, a snow blower puts less stress on your lower back than shoveling. You can use the power of your legs to push the snow blower while keeping your back straight and knees bent.

“The good news is that with the proper precautions and technique and with a doctor's agreement that you are fit enough to shovel, a moderate amount of snow shoveling is good exercise,” says Dr. Chang. “Fifteen minutes of shoveling counts as moderate physical activity and keeping these tips in mind, you can make the best of a winter chore and reduce the likelihood of injury.”