No matter what your age or physical condition, shoveling snow can be a vigorous activity that can cause low back pain. To help you avoid low back pain this winter, orthopedic specialist David B. Gealt, DO, of Cooper Bone & Joint Institute, offers the following tips to help keep you safe:
Warm Up: Athletes do it to help prepare for activity and to help avoid injury, and so should you. A few stretches for the arms, legs, and back, as well as a few steps in place to raise your heart rate, will help prepare the body by loosing up your muscles, increasing your body temperature, and getting your heart ready for the exercise to come.
Proper Dress: Dress in layers so you have the option to remove clothing as you work. One heavy layer could cause overheating, stressing the heart. Don’t forget your hat and gloves, as these items will help maintain your body temperature, especially if the winter wind is whipping.
Good Form: Remember to breathe, bend your knees, tighten your abdominal muscles, and use your arms and legs to help when lifting the snow to protect your back. Better yet, push the snow rather than lift it. A plastic snow shovel may also be lighter than a metal shovel, again decreasing the weight lifted or pushed. Also, avoid twisting with your feet planted because this motion is very stressful on your back.
Proper Pacing: Take frequent breaks and your body will thank you for it. If you know that you are in for a large snowfall, get out early and shovel while the snow is manageable. You may have to go back out and shovel a second time, but shoveling lighter loads is much safer.
Things to Avoid: Avoid caffeine or nicotine before beginning. These are stimulants, which may increase your heart rate and cause your blood vessels to constrict. Avoid large meals before or after shoveling, as this places extra stress on the heart. Also, drink plenty of water. You may be working up a sweat shoveling, and dehydration is just as big an issue in cold winter months as it is in the summer.
Listen to Your Body: Stop shoveling if you feel chest pain as well as shoulder, neck or arm pain; dizziness, fainting, sweating or nausea; or shortness of breath. If you think you’re having a heart attack, seek medical help immediately.
Warm Down: Just as you did warm-up stretches to prepare for shoveling, you should also do warm-down stretches when you finish by completing a few of the same stretches for your arms, legs, and back. Again, it’s important to replenish your body with fluids to avoid dehydration.
Soreness After the Activity: When dealing with a new or acute injury, it is important to remember the acronym PRICES, which stands for:
- Protection from further injury
- Compression (such as an ace bandage)
- Support (such as a brace or crutches)
There continues to be a debate over the use of heat and cold for injuries. When you have an acute or new injury, always use cold therapy. It is important to keep the ice on the injury for 20-30 minutes and then remove it for 30-60 minutes and repeat. Be sure you have a thin towel layer between the skin and the ice.
Also, if you have a history of a chronic problem with an activity, you may need to modify the activity in order to prevent further injury, or avoid the activity altogether.