Brrrr! “Baby, it’s cold outside”! Now that winter is here, snowfall is certainly in the Mid-Atlantic forecast. Many people take on the white stuff without adequate caution and end up bending, twisting, and lifting heavy weight. Improper biomechanics while shoveling and snowblowing can result in back pain, shoulder pain, and other injuries that lead to muscle strains and sprains and even herniated disks. Here are a few guidelines to help you alleviate undue stress on your spine during snowy weather.
Stretch and Warm up!
Most individuals who are about to tackle snow removal do not properly prepare their muscles beforehand. Just as you warm up for a workout or a run, appropriate stretching before shoveling snow reduces your chance of injury. Start by stretching your hamstrings, quadriceps (upper thigh muscles), calves, groin, and buttocks. A chiropractor or fitness trainer can provide a list of suitable stretches, and directions for doing them properly are typically shown online. Hold each stretch for 15 seconds. Ten minutes of stretching and warming up is recommended.
According to a report released by the US Surgeon General, just 15 minutes of snow shoveling is as much exertion as 30 minutes of a regular physical activity. If you are considered at risk for heart attack, you should be extremely careful about physical exertion. Paying someone else to do your snow removal may be a very wise, possibly lifesaving, decision. Dr. Thomas Campbell, head of Emergency Medicine at Western Pennsylvania Hospital in Pittsburgh states, “Shoveling snow is a very risky endeavor. Lifting 10 shovels of snow in 1 minute can take as much energy as climbing 7 flights of stairs.” He also advises complete avoidance of shoveling for those over the age of 40 or 45, those who live a sedentary lifestyle, or individuals with known high blood pressure.
Correct Biomechanics During Shoveling
Snow varies from wet and heavy to powdery and dry. Depending on the quantity and weight of snow, use of a lighter weight plastic shovel may be advantageous during heavier snowfalls. Spraying a silicone spray or a product like WD-40 on the shovel blade will help keep snow from sticking and make snow removal less strenuous. Choose a shovel with a curved, adjustable handle, which is a design that works well regardless of the individual’s height or size.
It is smarter to push snow than to drag it. The key to lifting snow properly is to squat with your buttocks low and bend at the hips and knees. Hold the shovel by placing your hands about 12 to 18 inches apart, with one hand at the handle and the other closer to the blade. Always face the snow pile you are going to lift rather than twisting your spine to get at it. In fact, twisting the spine while bending forward can increase the pressure on lower back disks up to 100-fold! Use your leg muscles and contract your abdominal muscles each time you lift, almost lunging at the snow.
Stretch your legs, buttocks, back, shoulders, and arms during the entire period you spend shoveling. Stretching increases flexibility and warmth and limits the likelihood of injury. Some shovelers choose to wear a corset or brace to support the muscles of the back, further reducing the potential for damage. While you are shoveling, stay hydrated by drinking liquids frequently (nonalcoholic, of course!), as it is surprisingly easy to become dehydrated while removing snow even in colder climates. To prevent slips and falls, pour kitty litter or salt on walkway areas that are icy or have already been shoveled.
Injuries to the coccyx (tailbone) are relatively common during the snow season when slippery conditions make you more likely to fall and land on your back. As you dump the snow out of your shovel, always turn your entire body, making sure that your belly button is your “pointer” and is facing the spot on which you intend to drop the snow. Walk to the area where you are piling snow rather than throwing snow over your shoulder or twisting your torso to reach it. When operating a snowblower, use the power of your legs and buttocks versus using your shoulders. Contract your abdominal muscles and keep your spine straight while maneuvering the machine.
Frequency of Shoveling
Remember to take frequent breaks while you are shoveling. Often a quick break every 10 to 20 minutes helps muscles rejuvenate from fatigue. Shoveling smaller snow piles more frequently is a better approach than attempting to move heavier piles in one marathon session. Contrary to some opinions, removing snow during snowfall is smarter than waiting for a big snowstorm to end.
Proper Snow Removal Attire
Dressing adequately for prolonged exposure to cold weather should be a no-brainer! Proper clothing is essential to the prevention of frostbite and other harmful effects. Boots need to feature good tread, and using kitty litter or an ice-melting product wherever you require good footing can help avoid slips and falls. Layer your clothing. Wearing waterproof items underneath your heavier clothes and including underclothing that wicks can help prevent exposure and sickness. Note that mittens trap warmth far more efficiently than gloves do.
What to Do if You Suffer an Injury
Even mild physical activities can cause disk herniations, back pain, neck and shoulder pain, radiating pain, and muscle soreness. If, despite precautions, you experience an injury or develop pain or muscle strains during snow removal, stop all exertion. Help is available! Contact Corrective Chiropractic, and let trained professionals make you more comfortable and help you recover faster through a variety of relief-giving therapies.