Shoveling Made Simple

By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP

Although Mother Nature has given us the Christmas gift of no snow to shovel in the month of December the inevitable has happened, winter has made its presence known in January. As the heart of the winter season approaches there will be several inches (or feet) of the white stuff to shovel. With the added strain to your muscles and joints this activity can cause a number of musculoskeletal injuries. Injuries to the lower back and shoulders are among the most common musculoskeletal injuries that occur during snow shoveling. On the opposite end of the severity spectrum, heart related injuries such as acute cardiac arrest or heart attack can be common in the older populations. Knowing what the most common snow shoveling injuries are can help us to prevent them from happening in the first place.

A comprehensive study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine found the following:

  • Overworking your muscles, falling, and being hit with the shovel were the most common reasons for getting hurt.
  • Muscle, ligament, tendon, and other soft tissue injuries were at the top of the list of snow shoveling mishaps. Among these mishaps, lower back injuries were some of the most common.
  • Other common snow shoveling injuries included cuts and broken bones. The arms and hands were the most likely body regions to sustain a fractured bone.
  • Heart-related problems made up only 7% of snow shoveling injuries. However, all deaths that occurred due to snow shoveling were the result of heart problems.
  • Adults over the age of 55 were 4.25 times more likely than younger people to have heart-related symptoms while shoveling.

The online resource “Spine Health” offers the following suggestions on their website for proper lifting techniques while shoveling:

  • Always face the load you want to lift while keeping your shoulders and hips square to the load.
  • Use a shovel that is lightweight and the proper length to minimize bending at the waist.
  • Bend at the hips, not the lower back or waist, and push the chest out, pointing forward. Then, bend your knees and lift with your thigh and hip muscles, keeping your back in an upright position.
  • Lift lighter loads more often rather than heavier loads less often. The average snow shovel load weighs approximately 20 pounds.
  • Walk to the area where you want to deposit the snow rather than throwing it. Keep the load as close to your body as possible until you are ready to drop it. Then drop the snow just in front of your feet.
  • When at all possible try to push the snow towards its intended destination instead of lifting it.
  • Do not throw the snow over your shoulder or to the side because the twisting motion involved may lead to a lower back injury.
  • Don’t shovel: Some people simply should not be shoveling snow. It is recommended that men and women over the age of 45, especially those who are not physically active on a regular basis or that have an existing history of a heart condition, should find someone else to do the shoveling.

If you have a large area to clear you may want to consider using a snow blower if you are able to operate one safely. Keep in mind that injuries can occur even when using a snow blower. Snow-blowing injuries tend to be more catastrophic and for this reason paying attention to the task at hand can help prevent snow-blowing injuries. Pushing a snow blower still requires effort so exertional injuries are still common. Good body mechanics are needed to prevent back and shoulder injuries. Above all please keep your hands out of the blower housing. If the blades get stuck do NOT try to unclog the snow with your hands. Even with the motor off, the blades have built up tension and when the snow is removed the tension is released quickly turning the blades and causing finger and hand injuries. If you have any of the physical limitations described or if you fall into one of the at risk categories it may be worthwhile to hire a professional to clear the snow. This option may cost you a few dollars on the front end but may end up saving you hundreds or thousands of dollars in medical bills in the long run.

Shoveling snow is not easy but by following the simple rules listed above you may be able to shovel your driveway and sidewalk without getting injured. Remember; never feel bad about asking for help. If you are struggling to get your snow cleared play it safe and ask someone for a hand. Of the options provided, consider the one that is best for you and have a safe and healthy winter season.