It’s that time of year again when we escape into the beauty of watching those first flakes fall. We will be shoveling snow, so learn tips to avoid back pain!
But it is also when ER visits go up due to injuries and heart attacks from the snow cleanup.
Shoveling is a strenuous activity. The dangerous combinations of cold temperatures, slippery ice, and physical exertion cause numerous mishaps, including heart and low back injuries.
Understanding the mechanisms that lead to an injury aids in establishing prevention strategies. Low backs strains and heart attacks can occur while shoveling because most people are not in shape for the difficult activity of removing heavy snow and ice.
Below we will give you tips to avoid back pain, why shoveling can cause stress on your low back, and what you can do to minimize any ill effects of shoveling.
Mechanics of shoveling snow
Shoveling requires repetitive bending, heavy lifting, and twisting. Isolated, each of these can cause an injury to your low back. When you combine all three, it is a recipe for disaster. When you understand the mechanics of injury, you can avoid and remedy the big culprits.
Bending forward is an everyday activity. Problems occur when you consistently bend forward more than you bend backward. Slouched sitting places the same posterior stress on your back as bending. Stiffness getting up after prolonged sitting and difficulty straightening up after repetitive bending are warning signs. Once you take a few steps and stand straight, this posterior stress on your spine eliminates because you are no longer bent forward. But if you continue to place the same posterior pressure on your back by remaining in a slouched position or continue to bend repetitively, this stress will cause damage. The body is supposed to move and be in different positions. Problems arise when you continue to place the same strain on your back without moving in the opposite direction.
Discs are the protective shock absorber between the bones in your back. The inside or nucleus consists mainly of water. Sitting slouched for a long time places anterior pressure on the disc nucleus, pushing it backward. Over time the displacement of the nucleus will cause tears, allowing the center of the disc to move even more posteriorly. You will not notice anything until you try to straighten up. This displacement of the nucleus causes stiffness when you change the spinal position because it is out of place. You feel better once you take a few steps because the walking motion places the opposite pressure on the nucleus, pushing it back to its central position. But over time, the nucleus may not be centered all the way and will stay a bit posterior. It then only takes a little bit more pressure or a twist while lifting a shovel of snow to throw your back out!
You will have no pain until the tear in the disc reaches the innervated outer layer. Nerves innervate only the very outer layer of the disc, leaving the majority of the disc with no nerve innervation and no pain sensation. Similar to your nail – when you rip your nail there is no pain unless the tear reaches the innervated nailbed. But there will be stiffness when you try to move out of the damaging position, and this is your early warning sign!
Prevention: Shoveling snow tips to avoid back pain
Know your limitations and get help when you need it. If you are out of shape or have other conditions, take it easy.
- Heart attacks can occur when there is a sudden increase in workload, and the heart cannot handle this requirement.
- Know your surroundings. Ice leads to slips and falls. Wear shoes with treads and throw down salt or sand to help create foot traction.
- Be prepared with the proper tools and clothing. Wear layers of clothes that you can remove as your core temperature increases when working. Use a shovel that is ergonomically correct and lightweight.
- Warm-Up: If you will do the heavy lifting and repetitive bending, make sure you are ready. Warm-up with back extensions. If you cannot do a full extension (cobra), do a set of ten to help increase your flexibility. The loss of extension range of motion is most often from prolonged sitting.
- Mechanics –When shoveling, push rather than throw and avoid twisting and throwing over your shoulder as this leads to a greater rate of injury.
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart to maintain balance.
- Try to keep the shovel close to your body.
- Bend at the knees—not the waist or back.
- Tighten your stomach muscles as you lift the snow to help maintain your spine in a neutral position.
- Lift with your legs—not your back.
- Avoid twisting your body.
- Push or dump the snow in front of you.
- Take breaks when you start to feel back stiffness and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Perform standing back extensions whenever you take a break or have any stiffness.
- Avoid sitting slouched after vigorous activity for 24 hours, as the slouched position will place your spine in the same flexed posture as bending forward.
At any hint of shortness of breath or chest pain, stop shoveling immediately and, if symptoms persist, seek medical attention.