As a kid I used to love Winter, but I hated shoveling snow. I grew up in northern Iowa, on the north side of our town, so there was nothing to stop all that snow and wind from Canada coming down through Minnesota right to our driveway. To make matters worse, our driveway was lined with retaining walls made out of railroad ties, creating a snow vacuum, thanks Dad. No sledding or snow fort building was allowed until the driveway had been cleared, which seemed like hours of sweaty, back breaking work with a shovel that was little more than a flat piece of steel on the end of straight stick. I’m sure my memory has a way of exaggerating the facts, but nevertheless my distaste of clearing snow from my driveway and sidewalks lingers on into adulthood.
Iowa winters can be unpredictable. Anyone who has lived in Iowa can attest to that, and this year has been no exception. While we’ve been pretty lucky so far and haven’t had many snow storms, but there is always a chance, and Old Man Winter decided to hang around until April last year! So when/if several inches of the white stuff do finally come down, make sure you’re prepared, here’s a few things to think about.
Save your back! Lift with your legs! We’ve all heard this advice, but that still doesn’t stop people from getting hurt. If you’re like me you want to get it over with as fast as possible, which too often leads to an injury. The most common injuries that occur while shoveling snow affect the low back and shoulder, resulting in over 158,000 trips to the emergency room per year.* People using a snow blower are also at risk, with more than 15,000 ER visits due to muscle strains, as well as lacerations to fingers attempting to clean out plugged augers.*
If you are going to clear your walks and driveways the old fashioned way, there are a lot more options now that what I had available growing up. Look for a shovel that has an ergonomic handle design to limit how much you have to bend or stoop, here are some examples:
I have a snow blower now, which is God’s gift to those of us that live this far above the Equator. That doesn’t mean can’t hurt your back or shoulder pushing the thing around, as some can weigh several hundred pounds. You may have to go slower than you want or take a smaller swath with each pass, but it will be worth it in the long run. We’ve all been told to never stick your hand in the auger to clear snow while the machine is running, that doesn’t mean we don’t try to get away with it, self-included. Most come with a tool for removing snow and ice that builds up on the inside, so follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for your machine.
Don’t underestimate the cardiovascular work-out that shoveling snow can impose on your body. Wet snow is usually heavier, and using the muscles in your arms and torso to lift and throw the snow can put a dramatic load on your heart. Combine that with the cold air you’re breathing in, which causes constriction of blood vessels and decreases delivery of oxygen to your body’s tissues, and the risk of heart attack goes up considerably with just a few inches of snow fall. So before you head outside, and especially if you have a history of cardiac disease, blood clots, or are generally out of shape, here’s a few tips:
As a Physical Therapist I would be remiss if I didn’t mention warming up and stretching out. Lay on your back and pull your knee to your chest to stretch your lower back muscles, holding for 20 seconds before switching to the other leg. Do this several times.
Now stand up, hug your arm across your chest to stretch the back of your shoulder, holding for 20 seconds, 3 times on each arm.
Now you are ready to brave the elements and do battle! Once you get outside, do a little at a time, and take frequent breaks to drink some water! You’ve probably got several layers of clothes on, and won’t notice how much you’re sweating since its cold outside, so replace those fluids.
No one said you had to do it all at once; if you are getting tired go inside, cool off, and go back out later. Many don’t know the warning signs of a heart attack, so if you feel short of breath, dizzy, have pain in your Left shoulder and down the arm, or feel like your chest is being squeezed, call 911.**
Winter can be a beautiful time of year, so be smart, be safe, and enjoy it!
Matt Ehler, PT, ATC – Progressive Rehabilitation Associates, LLC
*US Consumer Product Safety Commission data from 2015
**Recommendations from Harvard Health Blog, 6/20/16