Snow Shoveling Survival Guide

by Dr. Nathan Hinkeldey on December 19, 2012


Avoid Back Injury When Shoveling SnowAs the snow flies, so do the people – out to shovel their sidewalks and driveways! With the first major snowstorm of the season due to hit our area in just a few hours, we can also safely forecast that countless people will spend anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours digging their way out of it over the next couple days. And that’s sure to create a virtual blizzard of traffic at area Emergency Rooms as people hurt their backs while shoveling snow.

According to the Journal of Emergency Medicine, more than 11,000 adults and children report to the emergency room each year for snow-shoveling related injuries. Between 1991 and 2006 more than 195,000 snow shoveling injuries reported to the ER.

As painful as it must be for those suffering from those injuries, this flurry of activity also causes pain for the hospitals in the form of ER congestion and backlog following particularly heavy snows, like the one forecast for the next two days.

Let’s not forget that an emergency room is intended for life threatening conditions, not for mechanical low back pain or other musculoskeletal injuries. If you do injure your back while shoveling snow, call my office and I’ll get you in as quickly as possible and do everything I can to relieve your pain.

Of course, the better remedy is to avoid hurting yourself in the first place, so I’ve put together this condensed Snow Shoveling Survival Guide to help you survive shoveling season without serious injury. We’ll start by understanding why injuries are so commonly caused by snow removal.

What Causes Back Injuries When Shoveling Snow?

Snow shoveling injuries are caused by overworking your muscles, improper posture, and inappropriate lifting. It should also be noted that snow shoveling often takes place in the morning. According to McGill, our low back is the most unstable in the morning. In between the bone (vertebra) are discs. Your discs loose height over the course of the day and gain height overnight when gravity is not compressing them. Greater height predisposes the back to injury.

How To Avoid Hurting Your Back When Shoveling Snow

Snow shoveling injuries can be prevented by following a few recommendations:

  1. Make sure that you are up and walking around for at least 30 minutes before going out to shovel.
  2. Stretch before you begin.
  3. Focus on your form.

Shoveling snow is a workout – as strenuous and demanding as many weight training and cardiovascular exercises. Therefore, it’s important that you prepare your body for it before you begin.

Don’t just jump out bed, pull on the winter clothes, and head for the drifts. Start by getting out of bed and walking around for about a half hour. This will allow you body to get used to the gravity and wake the muscles up before jumping into the snow bank.

Stretching is also important. One great stretch that you should perform prior to shoveling is to loosen your hip flexor to prevent hamstring strains. You should do this stretch after shoveling, as well.

As for your shoveling form, be sure to squat, using your hips and not your back. What I mean by this is that you you need to think about squatting with weight rather than bending over to tie your shoes. Pretend that each shovel weighs 100 pounds. Be deliberate and keep your back straight, bend at the waist, brace your core, and keep your knees behind your toes when squatting. Do not bend forward or turn or twist through your low back as these are the most common means of injury.

Get Help If You Get Hurt

Please don’t take my earlier remarks about the emergency room to mean that I’m discouraging you from getting help if you do injure yourself while shoveling snow. I merely want you to be aware that the ER is probably not the most appropriate choice, and not just because of the additional strain it might put on the hospital staff. There are also the matters of the type of care you would likely receive and the significant cost of an Emergency Room visit.

If you report to an ER with back pain, you’re most likely going to be treated with muscle relaxants and pain medication, which mask the condition more than remedy it. What you won’t get is deep tissue release and joint manipulation combined with therapeutic exercises and stretching, all of which serve to cure the problem and prevent it from happening again.

On a more practical note, a visit to the ER can cost upwards of $300, while a visit to your Chiropractor likely costs around $30-$60. And even if you have insurance that covers either option (ER or Chiropractor), repeated use of emergency services can cause your premiums to go up from one year to the next.

Let It Snow!

Snow is inevitable. Pain is not. Use these recommendations to avoid injury whenever possible. And for those injuries that you just can’t avoid, think of Team Chiropractic & Rehab first. We are here to help you Work Hard. Play Harder. Expect More.

Sources: Watson, D. American Journal of Emergency Medicine, January 2011;vol 29: pp 11-17.



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