Hurt yourself? Here’s right way to shovel snow

Jake Tudorica, a patient service representative at Edward Rehabilitation Services & Sports Medicine, shows how to correctly hold a shovel for removing snow.  |  David Sharos~For Sun-Times Media
Jake Tudorica, a patient service representative at Edward Rehabilitation Services & Sports Medicine, shows how to correctly hold a shovel for removing snow. | David Sharos~For Sun-Times Media

Given what we’ve already been through, it’s hard to believe — but the calendar says winter is still here for another month. And more than likely that means more snow.

Some are fortunate enough to have heavy-duty snow blowers that can plow through anything or a Good Samaritan neighbor who will do it for you if the drifts get high. But that still leaves a lot of folks doing some heavy lifting.

Area hospitals fortunately aren’t reporting any snow-shoveling related deaths, but back injuries from lifting too much or wrist fractures and other breakages resulting from falls have certainly been keeping some private physician offices and emergency rooms busy.

“I am seeing primarily muscular and skeletal injuries in my private practice,” reports Dr. Kevin Most, vice president of medical affairs for Cadence Heath. “There have been a number of fall fractures of hips and wrists as well as other muscular injuries resulting from shoveling snow and poor body mechanics.”

Most said the three most important steps to avoiding injury when shoveling snow involve lifting with your legs, keeping your hands close to your body, and not twisting your spine.

“But if you ever watch someone shoveling snow, virtually everyone does just the opposite of these three things,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate this year in that virtually all of the snow has been this white, powdery stuff that doesn’t weigh much. But before it’s over, it’s going to be 25 or 30 degrees and not snowing when it’s 5 degrees, and the stuff is going to be wet.”

Most said that, when wet snow comes, the weight of perhaps 3 pounds per cubic foot of snow jumps to 20 pounds per cubic foot, meaning that clearing a 16-by-30-foot driveway with snow a foot high means moving a couple of tons of material.

Vicki Broberg, a physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist who has worked at Edward Hospital for 28 years, says she has seen back and shoulder injuries this winter because many who choose to clear their driveways haven’t been active and doing much else.

“For some people, this is the only physical activity they’ve had, and for those that are in their mid-40s and beyond, we’ve seen a significant increase in back strains resulting from the lifting and twisting people have done,” Broberg said. “Lower backs aren’t designed to carry these kinds of loads, and here at our practice, we’ve seen probably twice the number of people we’ve seen in other years.”

Broberg said injuries often can be prevented by following a few tips. She advises people “warm up” by doing some stretching, jogging in place or walking a bit first. Lifting snow should be done by using the body’s larger muscle groups, including quads and gluteus muscles, and it’s important, Broberg said, to keep shoulder and hips in the same direction and avoid the twisting movements.

“You also need to hold the shovel correctly by putting one hand down by the blade and the other at the handle so you can better control the load,” she said. “Take smaller loads, and if there are 6 or 10 inches expected, try to go out more frequently.”

Most notes that there are people who often “warm up” before snow shoveling with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, which he says are probably the worse things one can do.

“Coffee makes your heart race, and smoking cigarettes actually creates tension in the blood vessels, and here people are suddenly going out and doing a fairly strenuous activity,” he said. “You can reach maximum output pretty quickly, and this can put people with heart problems at risk.”

Broberg also advises wearing comfortable clothing and dressing in layers and keeping yourself well hydrated.

“You also want to have good footwear, so you don’t slip, and remove snow as soon as you can because the longer it sits there, the more it gets compacted,” she said. “By all means, take breaks and rest when you have to.”

Shoveling tips

A 2011 study published in the Clinical Research in Cardiology revealed that shoveling snow actually does increase the risk of a having a heart attack. The study looked at 500 people and found that 7 percent started experiencing symptoms of heart problems while shoveling snow. The cardiologists conducting the Canadian study felt that while that number is significant, there could be as many as double that number given the fact that the patients may not have connected their heart problems with snow shoveling.

“While heart attacks might be the most serious consequence of shoveling snow, there are other even more common health risks, including dehydration, back injuries, pulled muscles, broken bones and frostbite. But the good news is there are ways to safely shovel snow,” said Martin B. Tirado, executive director, Snow & Ice Management Association.

Shoveling out? Here are some tips on how to shovel snow safely from SIMA.

Stay on top of the snow. No we aren’t suggesting that you make snow angels, but when there’s a heavy snow, the best advice is to stay ahead of the storm. SIMA recommends that to prevent snow and ice from adhering to the sidewalk or street, clear the snow every few inches instead of waiting for the snow to stop falling before you head outdoors.

Wear breathable layers. Layering is typical cold-winter weather advice. We suggest wearing layers of loose clothing so you can peal a layer off if you get hot. Avoid wearing heavy wools, manmade materials or other materials that don’t allow perspiration to evaporate. Better choices are cotton and silk.

Watch your feet. No you aren’t on “Dancing with the Stars,” but nonetheless, you need to pay attention to what’s on your feet when heading outdoors to shovel snow. SIMA suggests wearing quality outdoor winter wear such as waterproof boots with good traction. Good traction is critical to ensuring that you don’t slip and fall.

Take a few minutes to stretch. Shoveling snow is a workout, so you need to stretch to warm up your muscles particularly because you are shoveling snow in the cold weather. Stretching before you start shoveling will help prevent injury and fatigue.

Push don’t lift. Sounds like something a high school wrestling coach might say, but if you push the snow to the side rather than trying to lift the snow to remove it, you exert less energy thereby placing less stress on your body.

Drink up! Water that is. SIMA recommends taking frequent breaks and staying hydrated. You should drink water as if you were enduring a tough workout at the gym or running 5 miles.

Don’t play in traffic. Sometimes people get so focused on the task at hand they don’t pay attention to their surroundings. When shoveling snow near streets, pay attention to the traffic since vehicles may not have good traction in the snow and ice.

Call and text. We’re not suggesting that you make calls and text while shoveling snow, but it is important to have your cell phone on you so you can make a call in event of an emergency.

Source: Snow & Ice Management Association