Here in Portland, we don’t see much snow…but when we do we are ready to shovel that white stuff out of driveways and sidewalks! Anyone who has shoveled snow before knows what a great workout it can be. When you consider that the average shovelful of snow weighs 5-10 pounds, the average driveway or walkway may hold hundreds of pounds of snow. But despite the benefits, shoveling snow can also be physically stressful; bending, lifting and twisting, combined with the exposure to freezing conditions, can take a serious toll on the body. Typically, the arms, shoulders and back get sore and may occasionally feel pain. Unfortunately, pain is a sign that an injury has already occurred or that mechanically you are doing something incorrect in shoveling the snow. In short, there is a right and a wrong way to shovel snow, and paying attention to your technique can make a big difference in how you feel the next day. Here are some quick tips on how to shovel snow smarter and avoid being injured.
* Be prepared: Spray your shovel with Teflon so the snow won’t stick to it. The more snow that stays on the shovel, the heavier it gets and the more chance for injury – and frustration.
* Do a warm up first: A tight, stiff body is asking for injury. A few minutes of stretching can save you a lot of pain later. (And when you are shoveling, don’t forget to breathe. Holding your breath makes you tight and stiff.)
* Layer your clothing: Layered clothing will keep your muscles warm and flexible. You can shed a layer if you get too hot. Make sure you wear gloves that cover your wrists completely; if your wrists get cold, then your fingers, hands and arms will be cold too.
* Wear the right shoes: Choose shoes with plenty of cushioning in the soles to absorb the impact of walking on hard, frozen ground.
* Use the right size shovel: Your shovel should be about chest high on you, allowing you to keep your back straight when lifting. A shovel with a short staff forces you to bend more to lift the load; a too-tall shovel makes the weight heavier at the end. Also keep one hand close to the base of the shovel to balance weight and lessen the strain on your back.
* Timing is everything: Listen to weather forecasts so you can shovel in ideal conditions. If possible, wait until the afternoon to shovel. Many spinal disc injuries occur in the morning when there is increased fluid pressure in the disc because your body has been at rest all night.
* Drink lots of water: Drinking water frequently throughout the day helps to keep muscles and the body hydrated. Be careful with hot drinks like coffee or hot chocolate. Coffee contains caffeine, which ha a dehydrating effect and adds even more stress to the body.
* Use proper posture: When you do shovel, bend your knees and keep your back straight while lifting with your legs. Push the snow straight ahead; don’t try to throw it. Walk it to the snow bank. Try to shovel forward to avoid sudden twists of the torso and reduce strain on the back. The American Chiropractic Association recommends using the “scissors stance”, in which you work with your right foot forward for a few minutes then shift ot the front foot.
* Take your time: Working too hard, too fast is an easy way to strain muscles. Take frequent breaks. Shovel for about 5 minutes at a time then rest for two minutes or so.
* See your Chiropractor: Gentle spinal manipulation will help keep your back flexible and minimize the chance for injury. If you do overdo it, your Chiropractor can help you feel better and prevent further injury.
So enjoy the snow this year, but remember that when it comes to shoveling snow, safety is absolutely paramount. Taking heed of these simple tips could mean the difference between spending your day enjoying the beauty and wonder of the new snowfall or lying in bed with a sore back, sprained ankle or other injury that could have easily been avoided. Talk to your doctor for additional information.
Douglas R. Briggs, DC, Dipl. Ac., DAAPM.
TO your health December 2009.