[Skip to Content]

Physical therapists share how to prevent injury when snow shoveling

snowshovelAlmost 7 percent of the people suffering snow shoveling injuries who seek care in an emergency department are having cardiac-related systems, according to research published in 2011. And that's not surprising, say physical therapists Laura Donlan and Terry Davis-Clark.

They point out that snow shoveling requires coordinated movement of the major muscle groups and requires a high level of simultaneous exertion from the legs, arms and back. The relative heart rate can exceed the upper limits of recommended aerobic exercise during a 2-minutes period of snow shoveling in sedentary men.

To combat that, Donlan and Davis-Clark advise shoveling slowly to decrease the workload on your heart. Also, try not to drink too much caffeine prior to shoveling, as this will increase your heart rate. They also recommended taking brief rest periods, using good body mechanics, shoveling lighter amounts, using an ergonomically designed shovel, and protecting yourself from freezing temperatures by wearing several layers. Freezing temperatures alone can increased cardiac workload by causing peripheral vasoconstriction and increasing blood viscosity.

Here are their tips for guarding against injuries such as back strain while snow shoveling:

1.  Lift smaller loads of snow, rather than heavy shovelfuls. Take care to bend your knees and lift with your legs rather than with your back.

2. Use a shovel with a handle that lets you keep your back straight while lifting. A short handle will cause you to bend more to lift the load. Using a shovel that's too long makes the weight at the end heavier.

An ergonomic snow shovel can help in avoiding potential back strain.  This style of shovel will allow a slight bend in the knees and arch in your back while keeping the shovel blade on the ground. Also, a small, lightweight, plastic blade helps reduce the amount of weight that you are moving. The lighter materials that snow shovels are made of today, and the design allows lifting the snow without creating as much load on your back when you bend.  An ergonomic curve in the handle lets the shovel get lower to the ground without making you bend as much to pick up the snow.

3. Because the spine cannot tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements, it is important to avoid this movement as much as possible. Step in the direction in which you are throwing the snow to prevent the low back from twisting. This will help avoid "next-day back fatigue" so often experienced by people who shovel snow.

4. Take frequent breaks when shoveling. Stand up straight and walk around periodically to extend the lower back.

5. Standing backward-bending exercises will help reverse the excessive forward bending that occurs while shoveling: stand straight and tall, place your hands toward the back of your hips, and bend backward slightly for several seconds.

6. It is also recommended to warm your muscles up for 5 to 10 minutes prior to strenuous activity, since a major contributing factor to musculoskeletal injuries is cold temperatures  while shoveling snow.

7. When lifting, try to place one hand on the handle of the shovel and the other as close to the blade as possible, this will help to reduce the stress placed on your back.

8. After lifting the snow, do not extend your arms to throw the snow; that places more pressure on your back. Instead, walk over to where you want to place the snow.

9. Try to push the snow to the desired location instead of lifting. If at all possible, use a snow blower to avoid overstraining with lifting in cold weather.

10 Listen to your body. If you feel pain, feel short of breath or dizzy, take a break.