Snow fun and back pain

Man shoveling snow

Many people dream of a white Christmas, and in 2014, Colorado had one, as snow started falling in the Front Range the afternoon of Christmas day. While totals varied quite a bit, I’m pretty sure where I live got around 4 inches of the powdery white stuff. That meant I knew what I would be doing the day after Christmas: shoveling snow.

Between the sidewalk and the driveway, 4 inches of snow really isn’t that bad – even though my back would beg to differ. While hoping for snow-clearing elves to magically appear and take care of the task ahead of me, I started wondering what kind of damage I could do to my back.

After the holidays, I checked in with the physical therapists at North Colorado Medical Center’s rehab center to get to the bottom of it. I asked Susan Grassl, PT, about some of the perils of shoveling snow.

Grassl notes the most commonly injured part of the body is the back due to poor lifting mechanics or lifting too heavy of a load. Extremities can also be injured, such as shoulders and knees.

“Often times, they are minor strains and sprains; however, they can be more serious requiring medical attention,” said Grassl.

Before heading out into the cold to clear your sidewalk, Grassl and the other physical therapists have a few recommendations to help you avoid an injury:

  • Do some general stretching to prepare your body for the work at hand.
  • When shoveling, make sure you bend at the knees and not the waist.
  • Push the snow rather than lifting it and never throw it over your shoulder.
  • Keep your feet and hips pointed in the same direction you are pushing the snow to keep from twisting of the spine.

In regards to my own snow shoveling, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I haven’t been following any of these tips. When you think about it, though, they sure make sense. I would never have thought about stretching because I see that as something you do before exercise, not a chore like clearing snow.

If you do feel pain in your back, Grassl says it’s probably time to take a break.

“Using ice or heat and maintaining light mobility may improve pain,” Grassl says. “If pain persists for more than a few days, it wouldn’t hurt to check in with your physician.”

To go along with Grassl’s tips, the American Physical Therapy Association published some tips on their website. Here are some of them:

  • Smaller loads of snow are easier to move than a full shovel and always bend and lift with the knees – not the back.
  • Keep your back straight while lifting, which means you’ll need to find a shovel with an appropriate length handle.
  • Take breaks from the shoveling. Go inside and grab a cup of coffee or make sure to stand up straight to stretch the lower back.
  • Counter excessive forward bending by standing straight and tall, placing your hands toward the back of your hips and slightly bending backwards for several seconds.

If the aches and pains of shoveling snow weren’t enough, Grassl states that you also have to consider your heart.

“Snow shoveling is also taxing cardiovascularly,” she says. “If you are relatively sedentary or don’t typically exercise, take it slow and take multiple rest breaks.”

Fortunately, I didn’t hurt myself trying to clear the snow after Christmas, but with these tips, hopefully I never will. Because one thing is for certain: The magic snow-clearing elves have yet to visit my house….

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