Winter is here and the snow is coming. As doctors of physical therapy, we see many people suffering from injuries sustained while shoveling snow. The joints and muscles of the lower back, knees and shoulders are the most common sites for these problems. So many of the people we treat are those individuals who do not regularly exercise but jump outside with a vengeance at the first sight of snow to tackle the buildup. Though it may seem like mundane yard work, clearing snow can take a significant physical toll in a very brief period of time.
Shoveling snow can be classified as an extreme physical task. A person must engage the entire body, arms, trunk and legs; even the most difficult sports, such as running and cycling, only cause one part of the body to be put under stress. Swimming is an exception to this rule because while the entire body is engaged, the buoyancy provided by the water minimizes the physical stress. The activity that best approximates shoveling snow is cross-country skiing, because participants are using their arms, legs and core to propel themselves forward. Cross-country skiers are considered to be some of the most fit athletes in cardiovascular terms— consider this when sizing up the task of shoveling snow.
When an individual is engaging the arms, legs and trunk in an activity, the strain on the heart is tremendous. The heart must pump increased blood to multiple large muscle groups, which strains the cardiovascular system. Additionally, the act of shoveling requires movements not typically repeated in day-to-day life by most people. Biomechanically, this stresses soft tissue and joint structures that are unprepared for the strain of the task at hand. The following are some suggestions to minimize the risk of injury while shoveling snow:
- Get an ergonomic shovel; waxing the blade will prevent snow from sticking.
- Wear wicking clothes and proper layers; do not wear cotton next to the skin. Cotton holds water and, therefore, can increase the risk of hypothermia.
- Warm up and stretch prior to shoveling, as you would before any other demanding workout.
- Take frequent breaks and pace yourself.
- Bend at your knees; don’t bend from your waist.
- Get help, in order to minimize the surface area and, in turn, the time you must spend engaging in shoveling.
- Change the side of your body you’re using.
- If you encounter deep or heavy snow, shovel from the top down, or in layers. Don’t try to lift all the snow in one shovelful.
- If it’s a light snow, “plow” it with your shovel and push it to the side.
- Prevent falls. After shoveling, sometimes the surface of the ground can become icy. Wear shoes with tread and grip.
- Shovel only what you must. If the entire driveway doesn’t need to be shoveled, for it to be functional, do not shovel the whole thing.
- Finally, if you notice that something hurts when you have finished shoveling, apply ice to that area. If symptoms persist, see a professional.
In my profession, prevention of injuries is the key to an individual’s absolute commitment and desire to continue participation in most activities and sports. Using common sense and methods of preparation will help to prevent these injuries. The above tips are gleaned from experience and conversations with patients that I have treated in the past. Please be safe this winter and prepare accordingly.
Dr. Lee Day is the owner of Hat City Physical Therapy. He is a Certified Athletic Trainer, certified strength and conditioning specialist, certified ITPT, ITAT concussion specialist through IMPACT and a certified CPR and first aid instructor. He has bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in Physical Therapy, and a master’s degree in Exercise Physiology. Dr. Lee has over 35 years of orthopedic and sports medicine experience with many professional, college, high school and Little League athletes.
For any questions or assistance with your needs, please contact Dr. Lee at 203- 748- 4278, Hat City Physical Therapy.